The story so far: In Season 5, episode The Replacement, Spike talks to Buffy about the lady who runs a tea stall in the local garbage dump. So here is Miss Agnes Pringle, English spinster lady of uncertain age, excellent cook, very reluctant vampire (It Was Not Her Fault), loved in the past by Richard Wilkins III and very importantly, now Spike's friend. All Agnes wants is a peaceful Unlife but knowing Spike this is unlikely to happen. Now the Slayer has died, Spike is trying to look out for Dawn and Agnes has offered the teenager a job in her new Olde Willow Tree Tea Shoppe, just across the road from The Magic Box. But just when things look settled, Dawn brings visitors...

Chapter 22 Business Women United

"This is Xander and this is his girlfriend, Anya." Dawn Summers smiled at Agnes and escorted her two friends towards a table. The man, dark haired, chubby faced but with a nice smile, waved a hand to where Agnes was standing in the shadows at the back of the shop.

"Miss Pringle – hi! Any chance of a coffee?"

"And some cake, please," the girl called Anya said, looking round her with a puzzled expression on her face.

"Agnes makes marvellous cakes," Dawn said proudly. "I'm going to be a waitress here at weekends. That will be so cool. I can take money and serve tea and I get to keep the tips!" She glanced anxiously at Agnes. "There will be tips?"

Agnes nodded nervously, aware that the demon girl's gaze kept coming back to her. "Of course. You can start by serving your friends, Dawn. It'll be good practice for you. Come into the kitchen and I'll make the coffee." She hustled the teenager away, brewed fresh coffee and arranged a plate full of jam tarts and slices of parkin - which was a little over its best, but still eatable.

She watched from the doorway as Dawn proudly carried the tray out to her friends, wincing slightly as, putting it down on the table, it tipped and everything slid towards Xander Harris' lap. But luckily the youngster managed to correct the tray and her friends hastily took their coffee and cakes before they ended on the floor.

"Won't you come and join us?" Dawn asked. "You're closed now. There won't be any more customers to worry about."

Nervously, Agnes stepped forward, her hands twisting the edge of her apron. "I can only stay a moment. I have a great deal of baking to do."

"Iggf theyg're as grood as these, I'll breee bag," Xander mumbled through a mouthful of jam and pastry.

The girl sitting next to him stared round the tea-room, her lips moving silently. Agnes realised she was counting. "If all these tables are full every evening, you must be making a lot of money," she said at last, her eyes shining.

"It's early days yet," Agnes replied. "I've only been open one evening so far."

"Why don't you open at lunch-time?" Anya said, looking at her curiously. "You could double your takings."

Agnes hesitated. How could she tell this demon girl that she was usually fast asleep at midday? Yes, it was odd that the shop wasn't open during the day, but she had no choice, unless she employed more staff. "There are so many fast-food places in Sunnydale," she murmured. "I can't compete with their prices. My clientele like to have tea and cakes around four o'clock and, of course, I am open in the evenings." She didn't think it would be wise to mention that she was open after midnight, through to five in the morning as well, for the demon market.

"I wanted to have a coffee bar in the Magic Box," Anya said. "But no one else thought it was a good idea. They were worried, but I never understood why."

Xander finished his jam tart and wiped pastry crumbs from his mouth. "Sweetie, there are soooo many things against having drinkable liquids for sale in the Magic Box. Potions and latte, not mixy."

Anya pouted. "Are you saying you can't mix human commerce with the magic world?"

Xander sighed. "No, I'm just saying, selling coffee and love potions at the same time could lead to problems."

"Miss Pringle here doesn't seem to have any problem and she's – "

Just then the bell rang as the door opened and a slim, red-headed girl strode in. Agnes backed away another few paces. This newcomer was buzzing with energy and confidence; anyone who got in her way would be pushed to one side. "There you all are! I've been hunting for Dawnie for ages. I wish you'd tell me where you're going. I thought you were with Spike. He must let us know if he's going to wander off and leave you. Tara was worried sick."

Agnes eased away from their table and pretended to rearrange the flowers on the cake display counter. It struck her as odd: this girl hadn't said that she was worried, just someone called Tara.

"Sorry, Willow. I haven't seen Spike this morning. He'll still be asleep. But hey, listen, this is cool. I'm going to work here at the tearooms as waitress at the weekends.!"

"Dawn, I'm not sure that's a good idea because - " Anya started to speak but Willow broke in with:

"As long as you still do your homework, I think that sounds great."

Dawn frowned, then said quietly, "Buffy would have been pleased, wouldn't she? That I was working, not just hanging out with friends."

Xander's face changed and he gave her a hug. "Buffy would have been delighted. She'd have been proud. We're all proud."

Dawn bit her lip and stood up, busily loading the tray with plates and cups and bearing it away into the kitchen where Agnes could hear the crashing of china and the running of hot water.

"But Willow – do you honestly think it's OK for Dawn to be working here with this Miss Pringle? I mean, how weird is that? She's a plain old – "

" – very nice person, I'm sure!" Xander broke in hastily, glancing across to where Agnes was now sitting, folding paper napkins into water-lilies, embarrassed in case she might have over-heard. But luckily the short, fluffy-haired woman was too far away. "Ahn!" he groaned. "This is one of those 'let's keep our thoughts about people to ourselves moments' I was telling you about. Remember? I know she looks weird and old-fashioned, but looks aren't everything."

"Yes, Anya, you must be careful. You can't go round upsetting people all the time. Think before you speak," Willow said. "We've got such a lot to do and it will be useful having Dawn out of the way. I don't want her to guess about – well, you know! So just watch what you say."

Agnes peered across the room. Vampire hearing and vampire vision did come in so useful sometimes. She could see quite plainly the expression that crossed the demon girl's face. It was only there for a moment, then it was hidden by a bright, blank shield. But Agnes was in no doubt that she had been hurt by those words. She could sympathise, knowing what it was like to be an outsider, always seeking entry to the inner circle. This young lady, Anya, was in an even worse position that she had ever been. She was so obviously in love with a man who would never, could never, fully understand her.

'At least the man of my dreams wasn't human!' Agnes thought, fondly remembering Richard Wilkins III. 'I can think of nothing worse than falling in love with an Unturned.'

At the far table, the three heads were now close together and the voices had dropped to a whisper even her ears couldn't distinguish. What were they planning? Whatever it was, Agnes wondered if Spike knew about it? She sighed. There was no point in telling him. He wasn't bothered about what the Unturneds did any more now that Buffy was gone. Dawn being safe and well, that was all he was concerned about.

She jumped as the three young people stood up and walked across to her. Xander shook her hand and told her how please he was that Dawn was going to be working in such a safe place. The red-head smiled in her direction, but Agnes knew she didn't really see her. Whatever her mind was busy with was obviously far too important to bother with a lowly tearoom lady. "I do hope you don't lose too many cups and plates with Dawn washing them up," she said and, laughing, turned to go.

The demon girl paused, watching as her two friends left the shop, her eyes bruised as they saw Xander's hand resting on Willow's shoulder. "They don't know," she said at last.

"Will you tell them?" Agnes watched as different emotions flashed across the pretty face in front of her.

"Is there any reason I shouldn't?"

Agnes smoothed down the frills of her apron. She was so tired; her feet ached, she had been up all night and still had a morning's baking to do. Fighting for her unlife was so tiring; sometimes she wished it was all over and she could just fade away into dust. But the distant sound of another plate breaking in the kitchen reminded her that she had promised to help Spike and Dawn. If they were now her mission in life, she couldn't give up at the first obstacle.

"I assure you that Dawn will be perfectly all right with me. Spike wouldn't have let her come here if he hadn't been certain of that."

"Anya! Hurry up!" Xander's voice was calling from outside.

"And I could let you have a basket of muffins every day to hand out to your customers in the Magic Box. Blueberry, chocolate chip, coconut, raspberry – "

"Free? Without charge?"

"Absolutely free."

The demon girl smiled brightly. "Starting tomorrow. Great," she said and flicking back her hair, turned to leave. "I do hope your shop is a success, Agnes," she added. "There aren't enough women bosses in Sunnydale's business world."