The Long Brick Road

BillAtWork's A/N:

This is a project that I've wanted to work on for a long time. The idea of what could have happened after Lethal Weapon has always intrigued me. Brickroad was one of my first Chuck friends, dating back to the first season. We've talked about working together several times. The vision for my Therapy story is based upon her February Air. We've beta'd each other's stories many times, but never went farther. We approached this a little differently than most collaborations. We are writing each chapter together. Sometimes it takes us many iterations of emails talking about plot points before we discover that we agreed all the time. :) I'm very excited to work with someone as talented as BrickRoad. I have to tell you, I'm excited by what I see so far. I hope that the love for the show and, more than that, respect for the characters that we share comes through.

Brickroad16's A/N:

I have to be honest, before Bill got me interested in this project (over the course of a few months and countless emails), I felt my days as a fan fiction writer to be winding down. I still love Chuck as much as I ever did, but I simply don't have as much time as I used to. However, I'm extremely happy that Bill twisted my arm into coauthoring this with him (yes, the title was part of what convinced me! :P). I think it brings out the best in both of us as writers, blending his sense of plot and action with my softer, more personal style. I'm very pleased with the result so far, especially since this is likely to be my last story. I will be leaving in about six weeks for a two-year trip overseas, during which I will have questionable internet access. So I'd like to thank Bill for the opportunity to help write this story, and I'd like to thank all of you who are about to read it. The Chuck community has been an amazing place to hang out these past three and a half years, and I'm so glad I've gotten to know you all. I really hope you enjoy this story! Here's to hoping this show and community will still be going strong when I get back in 2013! :)

We don't own Chuck. Actually, we don't own much of anything.

If you enjoyed this or any of the stories on this site, please take a second and send the author a review. It only takes a second – and it really, really makes a difference.

This story is set in the middle of Season Two. It was a much simpler time. There was no Intersect 2.0. Chuck and Sarah weren't together - far from it. Barstow was still a couple of months away. They were officially asset and handler. Chuck hadn't begun to search for his dad yet. Even Devon and Ellie were still some months away from their wedding day.

Things were actually pretty tense between our heroes. At Ellie's urging, Chuck had just ended their relationship – only to have the government insist that they resume it. Chuck was fairly convinced that Sarah and Cole were an item. After all, he had just witnessed a very steamy kiss between them on the surveillance monitor – and who knows what else? After all, they did spend that whole night together in Castle. Sarah was obviously attracted to Cole. Of course she was. Why wouldn't she be? He was exactly Sarah's type, the effortless hero and everything that Chuck wasn't. And unlike Chuck, he was someone who could understand the life that Sarah had chosen. Beyond respecting her choices, he made the same ones himself. They shared a spy bond that Chuck couldn't understand, much less match.

What Chuck didn't see on the monitor was Sarah turning down Cole's offer. Because he left too soon, his imagination was left to run wild. He assumed Cole was making his move, and he was right. Only he was very wrong about Sarah's response. How could anyone resist Cole's charms? And yet she did, with the simple explanation:

"When you meet someone that you care about, it's just hard to walk away."

This is the story of relationships - and choices. Those choices will be driven by all of the usual reasons people make choices – love, lust, duty, greed, fear, hate, jealousy. Some choices will lead new relationships to form and grow strong. Some choices will cause existing relationships to be tested and endure – whiles others will be tested and perhaps not survive. And finally some choices will cause relationships that once looked promising to never really form. But most of all, this is the story of two women's individual choices – and how true Sarah's statement to Cole really was…

The Courtyard

x-x-x-x-x

Chuck plodded his way up the courtyard. The pain in his sprained foot was intense, but bearable compared to the embarrassment he felt. Of all the stupid things . . . To be injured tripping on a window ledge. Not only to be injured by tripping on a window ledge, but to be injured by tripping on a window ledge while Cole Barker was throwing himself in front of bullets. And there he was, throwing himself in front of . . . carpet. No wonder that Sarah was choosing Cole. When faced with the international superspy and the computer nerd from Burbank, what girl wouldn't? At least she was sitting there by the fountain waiting for him. And she was alone. That was good. He didn't know if he could say this in front of Cole.

Sarah, sitting there on the fountain, chin resting on her fist, wasn't sure why the sight of Chuck limping on his injured foot struck her as funny. She knew that he was embarrassed about it, especially after enduring Casey's jabs for a whole day. The last thing that she wanted was to rub any more salt into that already open wound. Okay, yes, the story sounded pathetic. He tripped on a window ledge and broke his foot. No spy with a shred of dignity would ever allow that to happen. But Chuck never did exactly fit into the 'hero' role. She had half a mind to rip into Cole for allowing Chuck to be there in the first place. He could have really gotten hurt. And why should Chuck feel badly about not being Cole's equal? Cole had ten years of training. Besides, Sarah knew full well why Chuck had risked his life today. It was sweet – incredibly, unbelievably, frustratingly stupid – but still sweet. Even with all of that, though, she couldn't keep a silly grin from tugging at the corners of her lips.

"How's the foot?" she asked.

"Throbbing, thanks," was Chuck's reply. "Did Cole leave?"

Sarah was cautious. She didn't have to have years of training to pick up on his sensitivity to the MI-6 agent. "Un-huh," she said.

"He's quite a guy," Chuck said.

Sarah frowned. The last thing that she wanted to talk about was Cole Barker. So keep it short – and change the subject. "Yeah," she said. "That he is."

"You know," Chuck said. "I understand what you see in him. He's a great spy – he's umm… one of the good guys – and the truth is, you two would make a great team."

She sighed in frustration. Why wouldn't he just let this go? She knew he had confidence issues, with all the things that have happened to him in the past few years, but she hated that he couldn't see how valuable he was to the team. She hated that he was constantly trying to prove himself by doing idiotic things like trying to rescue her. She hated that, even after a year and a half together, he didn't seem to recognize just how much she cared for him. It was time to end this.

"Chuck," she said, perhaps not harshly, but with a definite edge.

"Please," Chuck interrupted as he sat down. "Please just . . . let me finish." Then he took off his shoulder bag and smoothed his hair. "Sarah," he said, "I'm not going to move in with you . . . because I can't. And you know why I can't. Sarah, I'm crazy about you. . . . I've always been."

This was getting into dangerous territory. What could she possibly say to that? Didn't he see the camera pointed directly at them? This wasn't the place for this conversation. Of course, there really wasn't a better place for it. It was just the way things were for spies. There were cameras at the Buy More, cameras in Castle, cameras in his apartment. Cameras everywhere, and no safe place to ever say what weighed so heavily on her mind.

"But you know, having a fake relationship is one thing," Chuck continued. "But living together is . . . I mean, every day being around each other . . . and, and . . . that's why I can't do it . . . and I hope that you understand."

Sarah knew that she had to say something, or Chuck would simply continue babbling. Then he would say something that would cause trouble, if he hadn't already.

"I do," was all she could get out. And she did understand. She understood far better than he gave her credit for. Chuck wanted more, more than she could give him right now. Sarah knew exactly what that felt like. Because she felt it too.

When she'd gotten the order to move in with him, for his greater protection of course, she was at war with herself. That tiny, irrational part of her heart that still believed in happy endings was ecstatic, thrilled at the possibility of spending more time with him. She'd always wanted an excuse to be around him more and more, but something had always prevented her from becoming better friends with him. Her sensible side, on the other hand, that side that tells her head to rule her heart with an iron fist, had immediately built up her walls. After all, if she was going to be cohabitating with her asset and the only man who could ever make her wish for normalcy, her defenses had to be rock-solid.

"Thank you," Chuck said as he stood up to leave.

Sarah was relieved. That hadn't been too bad. Hopefully whichever analyst was monitoring this particular feed wouldn't feel the need to make a report to Beckman.

"Oh," Chuck continued. "Just so you know - I am going to get this thing out of my head one day . . . I will. And when I do, I'm going to live the life that I want . . . with the girl that I love. Because I'm not going to let this rob me of that. I won't."

Sarah knew that she couldn't look at him or she would break down. Even if she could manage not to tell him, to confess all her feelings then and there, her face would give her away - if not to Chuck, then certainly to Beckman or whichever analyst was watching. For one thing, Chuck's last speech almost certainly guaranteed that Beckman would now be reading a transcript of this conversation. She might even personally review the tape. If that happened, she simply couldn't be allowed to see Agent Walker show any signs of being compromised. That would mean immediate reassignment. And that would be non-negotiable. So she just allowed him to walk away. Sarah couldn't help but take a peek at his retreating form.

She sighed. There was so much she wished she could tell him.

But at least he was safe.

x-x-x-x-x

Ellie was in the house busily putting boxes together when Chuck walked in.

"I went and got some moving boxes," she said with a grin.

Ellie was in her element. She was helping her little brother finally move on with his life. The truth was that she was far more relieved than happy. This thing with Chuck and Sarah had her confused. And if there was one thing that was for sure, Ellie didn't confuse easily. Not when it came to relationships. This one was different though. They had been together for over a year now. Not only that, they were with each other almost every waking minute. But they weren't happy. That much was clear. It was the time when most relationships either got serious, or they moved on. These kids didn't seem like they were doing either. Something was just . . . off. Ellie couldn't put her finger on what it was, but something was sure missing.

Oh, there were flashes. There were times when they looked at each other and you could just see the love in their eyes, especially Sarah's. But then, other times, they both just looked like they were marking time. She sometimes caught glimpses of uncertainty in Sarah's eyes, and wondered if her past (that mysterious ex who kept showing up) was the reason for her hesitancy to commit. She would very much love to play the overbearing older sister and blame it all on the girlfriend, but that was impossible whenever she looked at Sarah. She knew, without a doubt, that Sarah loved her brother. But the on-again, off-again nature of their relationship left her very confused, left her feeling a bit useless if truth be told. Because she and Devon were solid, and whenever she saw the affectionate glances passing between her brother and his girlfriend, she suddenly didn't have any words, didn't have any advice that could make it better.

Thank goodness that they were moving in together. Maybe this was the beginning of that 'getting serious' phase.

She truly hoped so, for both of their sakes', and she was making no effort to keep the excitement from her voice. "You can use them to pack. Do you need any help?"

Chuck's answer burst that building hope like a soap bubble. "We've had a change of plans," he said as he walked toward his room without looking at her. He didn't even break stride. "I'm not moving." Then he closed the door.

x-x-x-x-x

Sarah was honestly too mentally exhausted to even think about moving from her spot on the edge of the fountain. It was heartbreaking to listen to someone that you loved tell you how hard you were making it for them. That's exactly what Chuck was doing. Even if he didn't realize it - he was actually pleading with her to correct him. And she simply couldn't. It was one of the hardest things she had ever done to keep her chin planted on her fist and not say anything. And it was ten times as heartbreaking that someone you loved would never know how hard it was for you.

He was also just as clearly still jealous over Cole – for absolutely no reason. He simply couldn't be more wrong.

Oh, of course she admired Cole. She absolutely did. He was everything that an agent was supposed to be. She also had to admit that he was exactly the type of man she used to imagine herself with - the suave, rough-and-tumble save-the-world kind of guy. Two years ago she would have been on that plane to Fiji and the promised hot weekend in the sun in a heartbeat. There was even a time in her life - before Chuck, of course - when she would have thought herself quite happy to spend even a night or two with him, painting the town red and having the time of their young, adrenaline-filled lives.

But as much as she admired him, as much as she wanted to count him as a friend, it was a good thing that Cole left. Because another thing was also clear - Chuck's lack of confidence around him was starting to become more than a little annoying. Not only that, it was causing Chuck to do really stupid things trying to compete with him. And the worst part was that Sarah couldn't do a damn thing about it. She would never be able to live with herself if he got seriously injured, or worse, during one of his stunts to one-up Cole.

There was really only one thing that she could say to Chuck that would really fix this. She knew full well that she couldn't tell Chuck that she was crazy about him too, especially not in the courtyard. It was one thing for Cole to guess how she felt about Chuck. After all, Casey had guessed that same thing months ago. She was pretty sure that Beckman already had her suspicions. But the second that Beckman saw a tape of anything close to Sarah admitting it, she'd be reassigned faster than Jeff could find porn on the internet.

She knew Chuck all too well. He had just said it five minutes ago. He was going to get the Intersect out of his head and live a normal life, with the girl that he loved. She wouldn't have had the heart to tell him, even if there had been no cameras, but there was no way that Beckman would ever allow that to happen. If Chuck was ever going to be free of the Intersect, it would have to be by some rogue process. It was hard to imagine what that could possibly be.

It was also pretty plain that he was hoping the girl who he was going to spend his life with . . . the one that he loved . . . would be her. Sarah had to admit – there was a big part of her that was thrilled to hear him say it so plainly. But she also knew the instant that she admitted that she loved him back, he would change. He would become a doting boyfriend. And he would try and change her, change her into that normal girl he wanted so desperately. He would start shopping for that house with the white picket fence tomorrow morning.

Yes, on occasion, Sarah liked to daydream about that herself. The way she allowed herself to feel cooking him that omelet last week bordered on unprofessional. After all, they were in the middle of a mission and she was acting like Martha bloody Stewart. Even with all that, the fact of the matter was she didn't know how normal she could be – or honestly even wanted to be. She could be normal enough to cook him breakfast, but normal enough for a mortgage? Family vacations? Saturday morning softball practices? And the thing is he knew this. He knew she and normalcy didn't exactly coexist peacefully. Come on, Chuck. They had already had that exact discussion on this very same spot only a few weeks ago. Of course he would constantly pick a spot where the cameras meant that she really couldn't say anything. That was classic Chuck.

Besides, knowing how she felt would also render him completely unsafe. He wouldn't stay in the damn car as it was. The incredibly sweet moron had already jumped off a three story building to protect her. What would he do if he realized that she loved him too? Not only would Beckman see that coming from a mile away, but Chuck simply wasn't equipped to try and protect her. That was her job – to protect him. He was going to get hurt, or worse.

So when Sarah saw Cole come running up, she allowed her shoulders to noticeably sag. This was the last thing that she needed at this point. He was supposed to be gone already. She thought that she had made her position fairly clear in Castle an hour ago. She was staying with Chuck. It's where she wanted - needed - it's where she needed to be. Cole clearly understood what she was really saying to him, even if he had pressed a bit further than she was comfortable with. Cole must have realized that, even if he was right, she couldn't admit anything in Castle. Every facial expression was being analyzed. She had to pretend to not know what he was talking about. Even the little that she did say was probably too much. At least she didn't mention Chuck's name. So she could argue to Beckman that she was referring to Cole, should Beckman be so bold as to confront her.

So why was he back? Was he trying to get her reassigned?

Fortunately Cole didn't give her a chance to express any frustration. "Chuck's cover has been blown," he said quickly. "They're coming for him. If you want him to live, get him in the car in two minutes."

Sarah immediately snapped into agent mode, as swiftly as if someone had flicked a light switch. Chuck was in danger. Whatever mood she was in a second ago was totally and completely forgotten.

"What about his sister?" she asked as she hurried toward the door.

"She'll have to come with us," Cole answered. His demeanor was typical Cole, oozing confidence even through the stress. His smile belied the fact that the situation was clearly critical. His voice sounded like he was talking about picking up his dry cleaning - not an imminent live or death crisis. "Agent Casey went to collect Dr. Woodcomb. Fulcrum agents are on the way. We may have two minutes. If they get here before we can leave, we'll have to shoot it out," he informed her as he checked his gun clip, clearly not about to shy away from that possibility.

Sarah nodded. She knew full well what that meant. They would quickly be outnumbered and overwhelmed. They would surely kill her and Cole. But they would want Chuck alive. Maybe they would take Ellie alive as well, if it wasn't too much of an inconvenience. After all, Chuck would do anything to keep his sister from suffering any indignities at their hands. Sarah also knew what her orders were. The Intersect couldn't fall into Fulcrum hands. The war may well depend on it. That was the very first rule of this mission.

The problem was that Sarah knew there was only one way to keep that from happening, but she also knew there was no way she would be able to kill Chuck. She had stopped pretending to herself that it was even a possibility. That train had left the station over a year ago. That single fact alone meant that she was no longer an effective agent, that she should request reassignment, for Chuck's sake, for everybody's. But she also knew that it wasn't going to happen. She was already far too compromised. This was no longer an assignment. He was her life. They would have to drag her away from protecting him.

Of course, the other factor was that Cole would fully understand that order as well, and if push came to shove, he wouldn't have the same qualms about executing it. That couldn't happen. "Understand something," Sarah snapped, stopping and turning on her heel as she reached the door. "Nobody terminates Chuck except for me. That will be my call."

If Cole was surprised at the harshness of Sarah's tone, he didn't show it. "As you wish," he nodded. "I'm going to go get into ambush position. I'll meet you in the car."

In spite of the tenseness of the situation, Sarah had to smile, a little. If Cole was able to ambush the approaching agents, a whole lot of them would soon be wearing body bags. Nobody was better at his job than Cole, except for maybe Casey. Unfortunately, there would be more than enough enemies to overwhelm him, more than enough to capture Chuck. The only solution would be if they could escape undetected. Sarah had two minutes to get Chuck and Ellie into that car, or lose him forever.

x-x-x-x-x

Ellie was still looking wistfully at Chuck's bedroom door when Sarah burst into the room. She knew that Chuck would be able to read the look on her face, and he would know better than to argue. It was Ellie who was going to be the problem. But they didn't have time to be gentle. This was life or death. She also knew that she couldn't panic Ellie. That would waste precious time. So she forced herself to take a deep breath.

"Ellie," she said as calmly as she could, "we have somewhat of a situation. I need you to come with me." Then Sarah raised her voice. "Chuck!" she called. "I need to see you . . . right away."

Ellie, beyond being confused about this 'situation,' had, quite frankly, had it. They clearly had just had another fight. This was getting entirely too old. "Sarah," she said forcefully, "what is going on? You two have been fighting so much, but there has to be more to it. You know you can talk to me."

Sarah didn't have any time to be gentle. Even if she did, she really wouldn't know what to say anyway. "Ellie," she said as calmly as she could, "this isn't what it looks like. It's critical that you come with me, right now. No questions asked. Please."

Ellie blew out a huge sigh. "I don't think so," she said. "Look, Sarah. You know that I like you. Nobody has been rooting for you guys more than I have. But maybe you two should just give up once and for all. I mean, you're making each other miserable, and I hate seeing both of you like that."

Sarah didn't know what to do. The irony was that Ellie didn't have a clue just how right she was. It wasn't working, and they were both, indeed, incredibly miserable. She was just wrong about the 'why'. In fact, the cause for their unhappiness was almost the exact opposite of what she was assuming. But one thing was for sure. This was not the time to try and fix it. Certainly Ellie's not-so-subtle attempt at relationship counseling was going to take far too long. That only left Sarah one option – fear. So she pulled her gun out of her back waistband and pointed it at Ellie.

"I'll explain this later," she said. "But for right now, I'm issuing you a direct order. I need you to come with me. Now."

Naturally Ellie's eyes widened in fear. Of course, Chuck picked that exact instant to come bounding out of his bedroom. To his credit, he immediately understood that something was critically wrong. For Sarah to break her cover like this . . .

"What's going on?" he asked, voice trembling a little as he limped to a halt in front of the pair of women he cared about most.

"Sarah's gone completely nuts," Ellie said as she slowly raised her hands. "What kind of fight did you two have anyway?"

"Chuck," Sarah said, "we have to leave. Right now. Please help me with Ellie."

There was a desperation in Sarah's voice that both siblings picked up on.

"Come on, sis," Chuck said with as much of a smile as he could force. "It's okay. Sarah isn't going to shoot you. Let's go. She'll explain in a minute."

x-x-x-x-x

Cole had seen them approaching and was already in the driver's seat when they got to the car. Sarah went to Chuck's side and tried to help him. After all, he couldn't very well run with his cast. She had hated having to scare Ellie by pulling her gun. That was a fence that was going to require some serious mending. But that was simply going to have to wait. Right now, they had to get out of the area before the Fulcrum agents could spot them. Unless they could avoid being followed, they were sitting ducks.

Sarah helped Chuck get into the passenger seat. There was more room for his foot there. Ellie got in the rear seat directly behind him. Sarah ran around and got in the other side behind Cole. Ellie was clearly uncomfortable sitting next to her.

"Where are we going?" Ellie asked.

"Anyplace but here," Cole answered briskly as her threw the car into drive and sped off.

"Excuse me," Ellie said with her eyes widened in surprise. "Just who are you? Prince Charles?"

"It's okay, Ellie," Sarah said as she looked anxiously out the windows for any sign that they were being pursued. "This is Cole. He's a friend of mine." Sarah grimaced as soon as the words were out of her mouth. That was exactly the wrong thing to say. Indeed, Chuck was staring sadly at her. "I mean he's a friend of Chuck's and mine," she tried to correct. Too little, too late. Chuck had already turned back around, slumped in his seat and was starring aimlessly out the windshield.

Luckily, Cole stepped in for the save. "Cole Barker, at your service," he said, grinning at Ellie in the rearview. "Lovely to make your acquaintance, though I apologize for the circumstances."

"I need your cell phones," Sarah said, desperately in need of a change of subject. "Chuck, I need your watch."

Chuck handed them to her wordlessly. "My phone is still in the apartment," Ellie confessed, her tone wavering between terrified and angry. "Are you going to shoot me now?"

Sarah sighed at the abhorrence coming from Ellie, the underlying desperation and confusion. She rolled down the window and threw the phones and the watch on the ground just before Cole pulled onto the freeway.

"I'm sorry, Ellie," she said softly. "I understand how this must look to you. I promise that there is an explanation. Just wait until we stop and I'll tell you everything."

This situation was beyond messed up. Her cover with Ellie was now blown forever, and there was no way to explain this away. Almost as bad, Chuck was in the front seat pouting, again. And she had just pointed her weapon at perhaps her best female friend, someone she genuinely liked, maybe even more than liked, maybe even looked at as family. The look on Ellie's face was plain though. This wasn't going to be forgiven easily.

But they had escaped – alive. From where they were just two minutes ago, that was a big victory.

x-x-x-x-x

The last thing Sarah wanted to do was go into that room to face Ellie. Simply the thought of the fury on her friend's face was enough to make it difficult to breath, and she had to resort to pacing the balcony in order to calm herself down. They were in a dingy motel room on the outskirts of town. It was the kind of place that would accept cash, the kind that didn't ask questions. Cole had gotten two rooms, but it unfortunately wasn't a motel to have adjoining rooms. In fact, the rooms they were given weren't all that close to each other. And since there had to be an agent with a weapon in each room, boys in one room and girls in the other seemed like the logical arrangement.

The look on Chuck's face when she asked him to take Ellie into the room and wait while she talked to Cole broke her heart. It was obvious what he was thinking. But she just didn't have time to deal with Chuck's silly jealousy right now, and she hated the fact that he couldn't put his petty jealousy out of the way in the face of their current predicament, in the face of his safety. The reality was that she had to find out the situation, from the only person who knew, and that was a conversation that she sure didn't want to have in front of Chuck or, even worse, Ellie.

Fortunately, Cole told her that Casey was going to collect Devon and they were going to rendezvous here tomorrow. Hopefully, being with Devon would help calm Ellie a little. The bad thing was that being with Casey wasn't going to do much too calm Chuck. Casey was clearly enjoying rubbing the situation with Cole into his already fragile psyche. That's all we need. At least he would be another set of eyes, and, more importantly, another gun.

As far as the current situation, they weren't sure yet if or how Chuck's cover was blown. They were lucky that one of the prisoners who had been captured in yesterday's mission had talked. There was no mention that they knew Chuck was the Intersect - yet. He was just identified as a person to be picked up and questioned. Beckman had instructed them to go completely off the grid for two weeks and then check in using back channels. Hopefully by then they would have better intelligence.

Sarah didn't need Cole to explain the implications. She knew full well what it meant if Chuck was discovered. Chuck's safety up until now had depended upon his hiding in plain sight by blending into normal society. That was the whole reason Chuck and Casey worked at the stupid Buy More and she dressed daily in that ridiculous yogurt girl outfit (although it was infinitely better than the Weinerlicious getup). Once his identity was known, there was simply no way to protect him in anywhere close to a normal setting. Now the only hope was that they could contain the extent of who knew what about Chuck. If his cover were truly blown, it was over. Beckman would insist on taking Chuck to a bunker. And since Sarah had already promised herself there was no way she was ever going to allow that to happen . . . things were about to come to a head. The irresistible force was on course to meet the unmovable object.

But first things first - Sarah really had no idea what to say to Ellie. How did you tell someone that you actually cared for that you had been lying to them for two years? And talking about feelings had never been one of Sarah's strengths. Not only that, Sarah clearly wasn't Ellie's favorite person at the moment, an understatement which bordered on ridiculous. Her eyes were burning a hole right through Sarah's chest as soon as she walked in the door.

Sarah had to call on her training to keep her hands from shaking. She took a deep breath. "Okay, Ellie," she finally said. "It's time to tell you the truth."

x-x-x-x-x