Tracking another of Uncle Roger's more outrageous theories concerning a special crystal skull, Ian takes Mac back to Central America where together they search for a hidden temple near the huge archaeological site of El Pilar which straddles the border of Belize and Guatemala. After searching for weeks, Ian knows he is close. He has found the plaza and the causeway and now the palace, the temple has to be here! Whatever Ian hoped for it most certainly was not an attack by two determined thieves who will stop at nothing to get their way.

West of El Pilar
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Chapter One

The black SUV pulled into the visitor's car parking lot of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, the driver lining up his vehicle perfectly between the lines. The tall, silver haired man uncurled his lithe frame from his vehicle and languidly walked towards the ivy covered red brick building, smiling as he thought about surprising his lover. As far as Ian knew, Mac was still a few hundred miles away and not due back in Chicago until the following morning. This was one of those times when it paid to be the boss of the Tomcat Freight Line; Mac could happily change the route and the timetable to suit his purposes. It was not something he did often, but the sound of his partner's voice when Mac had last spoken to him persuaded Mac that it was more important to be in Chicago than anywhere else.

Mac Wallace checked with the Anthropology Department to confirm where he could find Doctor Grayson and headed for the lecture hall. Slipping in quietly through a half open door, he lounged against the back wall of the hall, watching as Ian taught a class of his students. They were hanging on his every word. Ian never seemed to recognize what a good lecturer he was, easily drawing his students into his own visions of the ancient past. Even Mac was caught up in his vivid description of the lives of the Ancient Greek bonded warrior pairs, though, of course, in his case the interest was personal. After all, he was presently watching his own bonded partner. He grinned at the sudden image he had of Ian dressed as an ancient Greek warrior, all long golden limbs and long blond hair, wearing that fetching short skirt; it was a damned enticing fantasy. He wondered what Ian would say if he got hold of an ancient Greek outfit and asked Ian to wear it. His grin widened.

Checking his watch, Mac confirmed that the lecture was nearly over and he glanced around, watching as the students packed up, getting ready to leave. They were talking excitedly among themselves. Doctor Grayson's lectures were amongst the most popular. He was still under the impression it was as a result of his rise in popularity the previous year. After his famous discovery of the Ix-chel device within a hidden temple in Belize a little over a year ago, his classes had suddenly become very popular; but they had stayed full because he was an excellent teacher, not because of his sudden fame.

Mac nodded to a couple of the students who had seen him before and then turned his attention back to Ian, and what he saw confirmed he had been correct in his decision to get back home swiftly.

Ian wasn't even aware he was there; the younger man was staring down at the podium, at the papers spread all over it. To someone who knew him as well as Mac did, his body language alone was telling; stooped shoulders, a finger rubbing under his eyes and then migrating to rub the back of his neck. He didn't even bother to look up as his class dissipated. He slowly gathered the papers together, tidily tapped them into a nice neat pile which he placed on the corner of the podium. Then he picked up his bulging briefcase and removed a folder, opened it and took out a worn, dog-eared notebook.

Mac recognized both the folder and the notebook; it was Ian's Ix-chel file. Part of it Ian had inherited from his Uncle Roger and the rest accumulated over the years as he investigated and searched. Mac was somewhat surprised to find that Ian was carrying it around with him again. Then he thought maybe he shouldn't be. Perhaps it only confirmed Mac's own thinking of late.

He had been struck more and more that while Ian may be content with his life, he wasn't really happy. Not the way he used to be, not the way he had been when he had made his discovery of a lifetime. Not even the way he used to be over his relationship with Mac, and that hurt perhaps most of all. It was selfish, Mac acknowledged, but he was human after all. Ian was the most important thing in his life and he wanted Ian to feel the same way about him. He knew Ian loved him, he showed it in small ways whenever they were together, but it seemed to Mac that lately Ian had been...distant. It was almost as if his attention was elsewhere, and even when Ian had been so wrapped up in finding the Ix-chel device he had never seemed like that with Mac.

Last weekend, just before he had left on his road trip, Mac tried to broach the subject of his discontent with Ian, but he brushed it off, saying he was just tired. Then when Mac commented that he had felt for a time that something was worrying his partner, Ian had just smiled and said Mac was tired. Mac decided he would let Ian get away with his prevarication for a while, but Mac wouldn't let it drop indefinitely; he wanted to help Ian with whatever was bugging him.

Watching now, he saw Ian glide his hands lovingly across the leather cover of the notebook before skipping through its pages, stopping here and there to read a passage, and then he repeated the action, opening the file at random pages. A smile would flit across the attractive face for an instant to fade again, and reappear when something else, some other good memory, came to mind. Then with an audible sigh, Ian gathered everything back into the folder and began to pack it away in his briefcase again.

"Ian!" Mac called out, as if he had just walked into the lecture hall to see his lover.

Lifting his head swiftly in surprise at the sound of his partner's voice, Ian wasn't quick enough to hide his wistful expression before, with a smile, he asked, "Lord, Mac, what are you doing here?"

"Not glad to see me? Should I leave and come back tomorrow?" Mac grinned, moving steadily down the steps.

"Don't you dare, I missed you. This week seemed longer than… but how did you...? There's nothing wrong is there?" asked Ian, a frown marring his handsome features.

"No, of course not. I decided we've become... boring, wanted to shake things up a bit. So, surprise! You're going out to dinner tonight and," he looked around as if he expected someone to be listening in, and leaned close to Ian to whisper, "and then we are going to Jackson Park and make love under the stars."

A flush crept up Ian's neck as he declared, "Mac! We can't!" Ian hesitated, the heat still evident in his cheeks as he added, "Can we?"

"Wouldn't be the first time. As I recall a certain young man used to get all hot and bothered about the risk of sex in public places, especially somewhere so near to his University..."

"Mac!" Ian laughed. "You are incorrigible."

"True." Mac grinned, leaning that last inch to kiss Ian's ear and as he pulled back he whispered, "Sure can't be cured of you."

"Can we have dinner at your place instead? Then if you insist on illicit sex we can go out into the garden?"

"Damn, it's not illicit if it's in our garden." Mac painted a hangdog expression on his face that didn't fool Ian for one second.

"Wouldn't you rather have me all relaxed and pliant rather than too tense to really let go?" asked Ian breathily.

Eyes widening, Mac nodded, "Oh yeah, well if you put it like that..."

They walked out together, the verbal sparring continuing as they made their way to Mac's car.

As they drove from the University to Mac's house out by Crystal Lake, Ian grew quiet, and then sliding down into his seat, he fell asleep. Mac glanced at him and couldn't help the sigh that escaped. Normally, Ian would be talking virtually non stop, either about something he had been teaching or something that had happened at the University, or even trying to get Mac to talk about his latest trip. It was unusual for him to be so quiet and he usually only fell asleep if he'd been working particularly long hours. As far as Mac was aware, today had been a normal workday and for Ian, who was used to working a full day and then doing research in his own time, this was nothing.

Mac let his mind travel back to a year ago, remembering Ian then, feted by his colleagues and the media alike when all Ian wanted to do was stay with his "friend," who was stuck in the hospital. Mac had been injured when he had accidentally sprung a trap in the Mayan temple when they finally found the fabled Ix-chel device, the special icon that was linked to the supposed Mayan "fountain of youth," and was probably the beginning of all the fountain of youth legends the world over. In rescuing him, Ian had saved his life, and incidentally his own in the process, but not before Mac had sustained injuries to both legs. The right leg had been more seriously damaged and though Ian had done his best, it had taken them more than three days to trek out of the jungle and by that time, Mac's wounds were infected.

Mac spent a few days in the hospital in Belmopan, the capital city of Belize, while Ian contacted the Dean of the Oriental Institute in Chicago, Doctor William Tyler, about his remarkable find. He also made arrangements through Neil Mason and Leslie Baxter, who were running Mac's Tomcat Freight Line in his absence, for a medical flight to bring Mac home.

Mac had to forcefully tell his partner to go and receive the accolades he deserved because Ian didn't want to leave him alone in the hospital.

"I don't have a single regret," Mac told his stubborn archaeologist, "I am just happy that you've been so successful, Ian. You deserve to enjoy it." Mac shrugged and added, "If I need any kind of help I can turn to Hank, Neil or Leslie, any of them will happily help me out while you give your talks to your peers or interviews to the press."

Of course, Ian still grumbled, reminding Mac that he was also heavily involved in liaising with the museums that wanted to display the Ix-chel device.

On top of everything else, Ian received requests to appear on a couple of television talk shows and, when they were alone together later, Mac admitted he was excited at the idea of Ian on the television.

"I can even have my own fifteen minutes of fame vicariously through you," Mac laughingly told Ian.

However, this backfired a little when Ian declared, "Ha, you're entitled to your own fifteen minutes, my love. I would never have found the Ix-chel device without your help."

"Help! Is that what you call it? I just tagged along for the ride and then sprung the trap in the temple that imprisoned us both. If you ask me I was more of a hindrance than a help," Mac declared.

Ian got all hot and bothered, waving his arms around and declaring that Mackenzie Wallace was a fool who did not know his own worth, even slipping into another language so that Mac had no idea what he was going on about. Ian actually only stopped when he realized that the person in question was currently laughing so hard he had to hold a hand to his side.

"Oh, I do love you," Mac managed to get out between gasps for breath and Ian melted and leaned over for a kiss.

Looking across at his lover now, Mac saw that even in sleep Ian looked anything but peaceful, with small frowns appearing around his eyes and creases to either side of his mouth. Mac decided that over dinner they were going to talk.

Turning into his driveway, Mac called to Ian that they were home and it was time to wake up.

"Uh?" Ian asked hazily.

"We're home," repeated Mac. He wished this really was home for both of them, but Ian still only spent a couple of nights a week here, the rest of the time he was at his apartment near the University. Mac had expected that once the furor died down Ian would move in full time, but it seemed it was a forlorn hope. Ian's life was still too tied up with the University and Mac wouldn't even think of asking him to give that up. He would just have to take what he could get. After all, Ian was committed to him.

As Ian stretched to work out the knots from sleeping in the car, something he rarely did, he glanced around as Mac parked up in front of his house and he couldn't help the pang at Mac's casual words. Home. Wish I could really make this my home.

He could not help the guilt he felt at yet again putting the plans they made on hold. He should never have agreed to move in with Mac, not because he didn't want to, but because he had accepted without thinking what it would really mean, and unfortunately he had never managed to make good on his word. He liked working at the Institute, he enjoyed teaching and he needed to be close to all his research materials, and the commute from Crystal Lake to the University in Chicago just took too long to do every morning and evening.

Mac was very good about it, saying he never really expected Ian to move in with him full time, that he understood about Ian's needs and that he should consider Mac's place as his whenever he wanted. He would always be grateful that he had been so lucky to have Mac as his partner and he was determined not to add anything else to Mac's plate.

"Come on, can't sit there all night," Mac groused.

"Sorry, don't know why I feel so wiped," Ian said as he finally got out of the car.

"You need a little love and attention that's all." Mac grinned.

"Oh, a promise for later?"

"A vow for after dinner," Mac promised.

"Talking of dinner, what are we having?"

"I'm sure Mrs. Simpson has left us something good in the refrigerator."

"Ah, the redoubtable Mrs. Simpson. What would you do without her?"

"Well, I wouldn't starve, but I wouldn't eat as well. What do you want? A steak or some pasta? Chicken, a salad?"

"Stop playing waiter, couldn't care what I eat, I simply want to be with you. I'm tired, might just want to go to bed," Ian said wearily.

"Well I'm starved and," Mac hesitated, not wanting to put Ian on the defensive too soon; he proceeded carefully, "I want to talk about something with you."

"Oh?" Ian said, eyebrows climbing. "It's usually like pulling teeth to get you to talk and now you want to discuss something?" He grinned.

Mac just shrugged. They had reached the kitchen by now, and Mac pulled open his refrigerator door. He pulled out a whole chicken, a salad crisper overflowing with ingredients, cheese and a variety of fruits.

"Is there any French bread?" Mac asked, and Ian got out a couple of sticks and a pat of butter from the cabinet as Mac quickly prepared a salad.

"Got any good wine?" Ian asked.

"Sure, take your pick."

Soon, they were settled comfortably in the living room after eating their meal. Mac hoped that after Ian had eaten well and drunk some wine, he would relax and unwind a little. Ian had made his usual excellent coffee and Mac brought out the brandy.

"Oh, the good stuff I see," said a smiling Ian. "What's the occasion?"

Mac shrugged, sitting back in his armchair, swirling the brandy in his glass. He had purposely not sat on the sofa with Ian as he usually did; he wanted to keep that little distance, as he was too susceptible to Ian if the man wasn't prepared to talk and wanted to get physical instead.

"No occasion other than being here with you."

"Except I'm here and you're over there." Ian smiled, cocking his head to one side, his eyes questioning.

"I want to talk to you for a few minutes," Mac said.

"You want to talk?"

"Funny, Ian, funny." But, for once, Mac wasn't smiling. "I want to know what it is that you're not telling me," he added quietly.

Staring at Mac, Ian was clearly taken back by the sudden unexpected and very direct question. "I don't know what you mean," replied Ian peevishly, his tone belying his words.

"It's me, Ian, don't do that. I thought we agreed to always be honest with each other." Mac knew that stung by the tightening of Ian's lips.

"I am honest with you, how can you say that?" Ian snapped.

"Okay, okay, sorry, I take that back. How about not being completely open, not telling me everything that's rolling around in that head of yours? The things that you keep too close to your chest because you think they'll—what? Upset me? Worry me? Ian, I worry more because I don't know about this stuff."

Ian dipped his head and said softly, "I didn't think you realized. I... I didn't know I was broadcasting my feelings that obviously." He looked up and smiled sheepishly. "Though I guess I should have done. I had no intention of keeping anything from you, it's just," he shrugged, "I didn't want to upset you."

"Not talking to me upsets me, Ian. Come on, spill."

"It's nothing really," Ian began but at Mac's swiftly raised eyebrow, he shrugged. "I guess I feel... restless. For almost as long as I can remember I've been searching, tracking down clues, investigating..."

"Trying to find lost treasures," interrupted Mac, holding up a hand as Ian spluttered indignantly, "and before you start, I'm not talking monetary value, nothing so crass." He grinned. "I'm talking about treasures to people like you, such as confirmation of your theory about a certain point in history, proof that there's more to those so-called legends. Call it what you will, these things put a seal on your life's work."

"You really do understand," said Ian, eyes wide and glowing.

"Don't sound so surprised! And you miss it, don't you?" Mac added softly, seeing the answer in his lover's bright eyes. "Okay, but why would any of this upset me?"

"Because if I started a new project it would take up a lot of my time and you'd almost certainly see even less of me. I know you're already unhappy with things as they are..."

"Whoa there! Unhappy? I could never be unhappy as long as I have you in my life. Not saying I wouldn't rather see you more often than I do, but I understand. And, Ian, I don't want you to feel you can't do what you want, what you need to do, ever. God knows, I'll support you any way I can, not that I'll be much help, I know, but I wish I could do something more for you."

"You really mean that? You won't mind when I get distracted and forget that I'm supposed to be with you?" asked a smiling Ian, eyes twinkling. "You won't get mad and start throwing things?"

"Well, I can't promise not to yell occasionally but making up is such fun!"

Ian laughed. It was a real genuine laugh and warmth flowed through Mac.

"Just remember one thing, Ian, any expeditions you go on, I go with you. I told you that in Belize and I meant it. You never go anywhere without me."

"Never. I swear." Ian held Mac's gaze steadily.

Smiling, Mac asked, "Are suggestions welcome, or do you have it all planned out?"

"Well, I did kind of have a possibility in mind," Ian said, one of his eyebrows rising, "but, be my guest," he invited. This should be interesting.

"Err, well, how about that crystal skull of your uncle's? I know it brought him a lot of grief, but so did the legend of the fountain of youth and look what happened to that theory."

Ian stared at him. "Have you been reading my journal?" he asked good-naturedly and Mac just looked smug. Ian sighed and gave Mac a glance over his glasses, a look he knew went straight to Mac's groin and he smiled as the older man shuffled uncomfortably in his chair.

Fixing Ian with a hard glare, Mac said, "Talk to me, Ian. Tell me what you're thinking."

Ian smiled, Mac was correct, he did have the right to know and Ian realized he had been thoughtless not to acknowledge how well Mac really knew him.

"You're right, and I'm sorry for not confiding in you. I have been thinking for awhile now about the crystal skull. It all came to the surface a couple of months ago when I was sorting through some of my old journals and paperwork and came across some of Uncle Roger's notebooks, the ones I had put to one side as they had nothing to do with the Ix-chel device. I meant to just glance through them, but I got caught up and began to read carefully. I noted a couple of specific clues that my uncle had followed up on and claimed had led him to the temple where he found the skull."

"I'm puzzled," Mac said, "I thought the skull was still missing."

"It is. According to Uncle Roger, part of the temple had begun to collapse while he was inside. He only just managed to climb out of there before he was trapped and he sustained his head injury in the process. The crystal skull was left behind and when he tried to return to reclaim it, he couldn't find the ruins again in the rain forest."

"So you want to what? Retrace your uncle's steps and bring the skull back?"

"Yeah, but I also want to know if what he said about the skull was correct too, the way he was about the Ix-chel device."

Mac frowned. "Correct in what way? That he found it all? That he wasn't just spinning a tale?"

"No, I've never doubted that he found it. My uncle wouldn't lie about something like that. He was too precise an archaeologist. No, the only thing I ever doubted, and that we argued over, was his statement that he met the Mayan gods and they told him their secrets. Not only did he have no proof, not even the skull, but he could never remember what they were supposed to have told him. Was it any wonder that I doubted him as much as everyone else did?"

"Well, of course not. I know how it ruined his career and damn near put an end to yours," Mac said.

"I wouldn't go that far. Though it did make me keep my plans and ideas to myself for the next few years," Ian admitted. "But you have to agree, he was right about the Ix-chel device and the fountain of youth legend."

"Ian? You... don't tell me you think it could be true, that Roger met the Mayan gods?"

"Well, not all of them, do you know how many there are?"

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