As soon as the director shouted "cut!" Tara collapsed into Willow's arms and sobbed uncontrollably.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she blubbered.
"Hey, honey" Willow said, as she lifted Tara's chin. "Why the sorries?"
"I got us lost and nearly out of the Race," Tara whimpered.
"Of course not, we're in this Race as a team, so whatever we do, we do together. No blaming anyone, is that clear?" Willow soothed her girlfriend. "Which of course means if I do something wrong, you're not allowed to blame me."
Tara managed to smile at Willow's attempts to cheer her up. It was working.
Phil Keogan came over to them. "Are you alright?" he asked with genuine concern.
Tara managed to wipe a tear off her face. "We will be, thanks Phil."
"You must have seen your fair share of weepiness by now," said Willow.
"It doesn't take the impact away. I've been doing this season after season, but for the contestants, it's the chance of a lifetime and it's understandable if they get emotional. I'm glad you're still in the race, take care and I'll see you at dinner?" said Phil as his assistant came to usher him off.
The crew's work didn't end after the cameras stopped rolling. Moving the entire production to hotels, loading the equipment to storage trucks and liaising with local officials required degrees in logistics, hospitality and communication.
Teams were put up at a local farm that also offered B&B facilities, they were thrilled to be sleeping in converted barns and stables. "To sample the local life," as Sheila described it.
After settling into their quarters, they met the line producers for the customary interviews followed by the debrief with all teams present.
"Hope everyone is not too tired. I know it's been a long day, you did very well with drive across 3 countries," said Elise, the senior executive producer who ran the show while it was on the road. "As you gathered, it was an non-elimination round so we have 9 teams intact. I'm going to turn over to Ashley to go over the Pitstop logistics. I'll see you all at dinner."
Ashley was the staff member the racers were closest to, she was the one they went to with any problems and she stayed with them during the Pitstop. As usual, she started with the arrival times, signing each team's time card that served as proof of their progress in the race. She also confirmed there were no time penalties this leg and went through the departure times.
"Now I have some good news and some better news. This is going to be a 36 hour pitstop, we're leaving the day after tomorrow. The even better news is, you'll be able to go out into town, they don't get TAR here so a decision was made to allow you to venture out. There are some conditions: 1) you are not allowed to talk about the Race, that's a given under any circumstances anyway; 2) you can't bring any race equipment with you; 3) you should consider yourselves in the same situation as a pitstop, ie no contacting friends and family; and finally 4) you will be chaperoned. Any questions?" she said, to rapturous cheers from the teams.
"Do we have to stay around Bellinzona or can we go a bit further?" asked Rupert.
"Within reason, you can go anywhere you want, when in doubt, check with your chaperone," she answered.
"Can we borrow the cars we came in?" asked Adam.
"No, they're being returned. You'll have to rely on public transport," Ashley said.
"What about money?" asked Anya.
"Good point, Anya. Each team will be given a per diem of 20 francs, if you have any left over, you can keep it," Ashley explained. "Any more? Okay, dinner will be served in the main hall in 30 minutes, I think you deserve a good meal."
Teams dispersed back to their rooms or to walk around the farm. Willow & Tara came up to Ashley.
"We have a question we didn't want to pose in front of the others. We have to get money for the next leg, can we do that during the Pitstop?" asked Tara.
"I don't see why not, as long as you don't tell people what it's for. The normal rules apply," Ashley answered. "What are you going to do?"
"Probably the usual groveling," said Willow.
"Tell you what. I'm going to approve this, provided a cameraman and a soundman come with you, okay?" Ashley offered.
Willow and Tara exchanged a quick look.
"Sure," they said in unison.
"What happened?" Anya asked when they joined each other at dinner. "One minute you're in my rearview mirror, the next minute you're gone."
"We got off the wrong turning, ended up on the wrong side of the Alps," Tara explained.
"We were so happy to find Bellinzona we went straight to the first castle we could see, and it was the wrong one," Willow added.
"That's not like you," Xander interjected.
"Yeah well, it's been a long day," Willow replied.
"I can't believe they made us drive all day," Anya agreed.
They were interrupted by the arrival of the food. Trays of salad, pasta, sausages, roast chicken, fries, breadrolls and fresh fruit greeted the famished racers and they attacked everything like they had not eaten for a whole day. Which in most cases were true.
At the buffet table Flutie was asking the chef where they get their sausage meat from.
"This sausage is very good, I want to try making some of this at my farm. What is it called, do you have the recipe?" he asked.
The chef shrugged his shoulders. "It's bratwurst and we get it from the suppliers," he said.
"It's pork isn't it?" Flutie followed on.
"It's veal," said the chef.
"Oh. That's no good then, veal import into the US is strictly controlled," Flutie said, disappointed.
Xander, Anya, Willow and Tara were joined by Faith and Robin. "Look, I think Randy is heading for a lot of trouble," Faith remarked.
"What does he think he's doing?" Xander wondered out loud.
"He's not being subtle about it, is he?" Willow added.
"That guy's got as much subtlety as a bull in a china shop," Anya chimed in.
"I think someone better steps in before - uh oh, too late," Robin said as he jumped up to stop the fight rapidly developing between Randy and Riley. Riley got first punch in, which landed Randy on the floor. With a snarl Randy sprung back up on his feet again immediately. Both men were swearing profanities at each other at that point.
Robin managed to get to Randy while Adam put a restraining hold on Riley. Rupert stepped in and forcefully dragged his son away.
"You better watch out, I'm onto you now, you son of a bitch," Riley shouted at the retreating Randy.
They were at the bus-stop early next morning.
"Are you girls going into town?" Sheila asked.
"Oh yes, we need to find some money for the next leg. Luckily we're in a touristy area," Tara answered.
"Here, take this, to help you out," Joyce handed over $10 to Tara.
Tara smiled the sweetest smile Joyce had ever seen. "Thanks, Joyce. We really appreciate this, you didn't have to."
Willow crossed the road and greeted her girlfriend with a peck on the cheek. She gave Joyce and Sheila a hug when Tara told her about the gift.
They parted ways when they got into town.
"We have the $10 the Moms gave us, plus the $10 from Anya and Xander. How much do you think we need?" asked Willow.
"I dunno. We may be staying in Switzerland so it'll be expensive if we need to get taxis and trains. At least $100, may be more," Tara replied.
"Oh boy, this is going to be humiliating," Willow sighed.
"We're in this together, Sweetie, we'll always have each other," Tara smiled and gave Willow a long, hard kiss. They had since the cherry orchard gotten used to showing their feelings freely in front of the crew.
They hadn't talked about the "always" yet. But it was becoming increasingly clear that this was the relationship they were both waiting for all their lives and they weren't going to let it go easily.
After an hour of pleading and begging they had about CHF 30, mostly in spare change. They decided to take a break and headed towards the town square.
"Water?" Willow offered.
"Thanks," Tara distractedly took the water bottle they filled up at the Pitstop, she was looking at a group of teenagers with a pensive expression.
"What?" asked Willow.
"Look," Tara nodded at the group she was observing. "They're setting up some easels. Come on, I want to talk to them."
A few minutes later Tara had negotiated the use of a sketch pad and some pieces of charcoal. It took her a few minutes to outline a portrait of one of the teenagers, who couldn't take his eyes off it.
"Wow," Willow said. "You know, honey, you can-"
"Yes I know," Tara smiled knowingly. Turning to the boy whose portrait she had just drawn, "This is for you, what's your name?"
"Claude," he replied.
"Well Claude, can I buy this sketch pad and a few pieces of chalk from you?" asked Tara.
"No, no, it's okay. It's un regalo, um, gift," Claude smiled. The other children crowded around too and Tara ended up sketching portraits of all of them.
By that time she had attracted attention from passers-by and tourists. She was kept busy all morning doing sketches while Willow, with Claude's help, managed to find a shop to buy some refreshments for everyone waiting in line.
Tara didn't charge a fixed price for the portraits, when people asked she would say as much or as little as they thought it was worth. They called it a day just after lunchtime and retired to a small pizzeria where they treated themselves to a vegetarian pizza and large glasses of soda.
"You were great, I'm so proud of you," Willow beamed.
"You know how much I love drawing, it was enjoyable. How much did we make?" Tara smiled back.
"CHF 200 and change, I almost fainted when that couple gave us a 50 franc note," Willow said excitedly.
"You think we have enough?"
"I think so, are you tired?"
"Let's take it easy, do a little sightseeing, get our dinner and have an early night."
"I'm so proud of you today, I just want to tell you again."
Tara's heart felt like it would burst, she looked at the redhead by her side, her redhead, with the most sincere and loving expression on her face, and every uncertainty, every frustration, simply melted away.
"Let's go back now. I need to hold you, feel you around me, all of you. Right now," she said thickly. They had been waiting, taking things slow. But it was time to take the next step.
Willow nodded, paid the waitress and they headed back to the farm.
They sat facing each other on the bed. Outside were the sounds of a working farm - cowbells ringing, horses trotting in the distance, a tractor hauling hay bales. Inside their room, none of it mattered. They knew in about 12 hours' time they would be back in the race. But right now, none of it mattered.
Tara reached out with her left hand and gently stroked the side of Willow's cheek, feeling her love sigh and lean into the caress. With her other hand, she traced a path along Willow's neck and the first button on her shirt. Her left hand joined her right and she slowly undid the buttons, one by one, she wasn't about to rush things, the slowness of her actions a sign of her desire to prolong the pleasure.
Just looking at Willow was pleasure enough.
Every button she eased off opened up an expanse of skin that, every time she saw it, always felt like the first time.
Willow sat very still, barely breathing, her eyes wide with the wonderment that was Tara. Her heart singing her love and devotion to the woman in front of her. A woman who she found, and was never letting go.
When all her buttons were undone, and while Tara was gently sliding her warm hands inside to undo her bra, she tugged at the bottom of Tara's T-shirt and softly rolled it up until it bunched at Tara's neck, then her hands found their way to Tara's back and mimicked her love's action there.
She shrugged her shirt and bra off and helped Tara out of her clothes.
Pants were removed with equal reverence and celebration. But they kept the last small piece of clothing on, today was a day for simple pleasures.
Looking at each other was pleasure enough.
They were lying face to face now, arms and legs in an unorderly but comforting embrace.
Light, feathery brushes that caused goose pimples to spring up and breaths to shorten.
Tiny kisses that grew more intense. Lips and tongues and teeth smashed together.
Bodies in contact, the shared warmth a conduit for a closeness they thought they felt before, but was becoming fully manifested.
It was just them, tonight.