[personal profile] starwatcher_fic

Title: Spreading the Word
Summary: What does a helpful grad student do for his friends?
Style: Gen
Size: 3,350 words; about 6 pages in MS Word
Warnings: None
Notes: July, 2002. Self-beta'd, but the ending was improved with the help of input from the folks at Sentinel Workshop. Thanks for the suggestions, ladies. Offer enclosed; see notes at end.
Feedback: Not necessary, but every comment is treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a note that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org

Spreading the Word

by StarWatcher

Henri Brown was fuming in front of his computer, jabbing at the keyboard and swearing under his breath. Finally, he gave up. "Hey, Hairboy!" he called. "Tell me again how to set this thing up to print sideways."

Blair Sandburg walked up behind him and leaned over his shoulder. "Simple, H. Take your cursor to the top menu and click on 'File' ... then 'Page Setup' ... then 'Paper Size' ... then click the circle next to 'Landscape'." He paused between each step, giving the big detective time to find and click on each selection. "All right, man!" he crowed when success was achieved. "Now, think you can remember that for next time?"

Henri heaved a deeply-martyred sigh. "Hell, you know I try, Hairboy. I even wrote it down the last time you told me, but now I can't find the note I made."

Blair patted his shoulder. "Don't worry about it, man. Historically speaking, there's always a cultural period of adjustment before everyone becomes comfortable and conversant with new technology, whether it's a car or a computer. Actually, part of is the fault of the programming -- the techies don't know how to make it simple for the ordinary folks like you and me. You'll get the hang of it before you know it."

As Sandburg walked back to continue his own interrupted work, Henri chuckled to himself. Imagine Hairboy considering himself 'ordinary folk'. But that was one reason he got along so well with other people -- he never gave himself airs, or acted like he was better or smarter than anyone else.

Jim Ellison was seething in front of his computer, stabbing at the keyboard and muttering imprecations under his breath. How could he phrase this report in a suitable 'politically correct' style and still convey the enormity of the debacle that had occurred? He needed the walking thesaurus that was Sandburg, and his partner should have been here half an hour ago.

"Hi, Jim!" Blair called as he walked into the bullpen fifteen minutes later and dropped his backpack beside Jim's desk. "What's up?"

"'What's up' is you're forty-five minutes late, and I need your input on this Matheson report. Where have you been?"

"Oh, gee, man, I'm sorry. I was downstairs helping Donna -- you know that cute new clerk? -- format some tables for her computer. She's got a lot of information to input, and was having trouble setting up the parameters she needed. So I was just --"

"Stow it Romeo, I know what you were 'just'. We've 'got a lot of information to input' too, and explaining this truthfully without landing our asses in hot water is going to take some doing. Let's see how well you can obfuscate through this mess."

Megan Connor was grumbling in front of her computer, pecking at the keyboard and mumbling incoherent Australian epithets under her breath. There was a way... she knew there was a way... but she couldn't remember! Then she spied her salvation.

"Oh, Sandy, I'm so glad you're back!" she exclaimed as Blair returned with cups of coffee from the break-room. "I need to design a handout for my church group -- something that will be noticed. Doris -- down in booking -- was telling me about some 'fancy-print' part of the program, but I can't find it. Do you know what she meant?"

"Hmm, was she talking about Word Art? You just click up here and..." The ever-helpful young man sat down at her elbow and gave her an impromptu lesson. Thirty minutes later, Megan printed out the first copy of the attractive, eye-catching leaflet that she -- and Blair -- had designed.

She held it out and examined it with evident satisfaction. "Thanks ever so much, Sandy. You don't know how much I appreciate the help. I'll bring you some... oh, how about some homemade brownies tomorrow, to say 'thank you'?"

"You don't have to do that, Megan; you know I'll help any time I can. But if you insist -- better make a double batch, or I won't get any after this crew sees them!" He grinned broadly, and she couldn't help smiling back.

"The help you gave me, it's worth it," she assured him. "You saved me hours of 'homework' tonight; I'll use some of that time for baking." She paused as another thought occurred to her. "But what about the time you spent helping me? Are there any papers or 'homework' that I can help you with?"

Blair waved off her offer with a careless hand. "Don't worry about it. I'm almost finished grading my latest batch of papers; I'll be able to finish this evening, easily."

"Still," she murmured, "we take up a lot of your time with computer questions. Too bad it's not written down somewhere; then we could just look it up instead of bothering you."

Megan's words replayed in Blair's mind as he chopped vegetables for the stir-fry he was making for dinner. Too bad it's not written down somewhere. He heard her again as he loaded the marked essays into his backpack. Then we could just look it up. Not that he minded helping out -- it was kind of flattering, actually, that people were so confident that he could and would help them -- but he wasn't always at the station. Besides, it would be nice to give his friends the ego-boost of becoming more comfortable and competent on their computers.

Multi-tasking was as natural to Blair as breathing. As he joined Jim on the couch to watch the late news, he propped his laptop on his knees and began typing.

An hour later, Jim turned off the TV, stretched till his joints popped, and finally turned his attention toward his friend. "What'cha working on so hard, Chief? It sounds like you're going for the speed-typing Olympics over there. Got a hot new idea for the diss?"

"Nah, just a little something for the guys at work," he replied in a distracted mumble. "It shouldn't take too long to finish up."

"Well, remember we have an early call tomorrow. If you're not up in time, I'll just drag your butt out of the bed, so plan on getting to sleep before the 'wee small hours'."

His only answer was an absent-minded hand-wave that barely made a ripple in the rhythm of Blair's typing. The soft clicking of the keys followed Jim up the stairs as he pondered his partner's resemblance to a certain large, pink, drum-beating bunny.

Within three days, it had become an established routine -- when the late news started, Blair settled down to his personal typing marathon. Jim usually tried not to intrude into the academic half of his friend's life, in part to avoid the mini-lectures that generally accompanied Blair's explanations. But his curiosity was struggling to break out -- maybe there was a reason his spirit animal was a large cat -- and he finally gave it free rein.

"So, Chief... you said you were working on -- and I quote -- 'a little something for the guys at work'. 'Little something's don't ordinarily take four days. You usually come up for air once in awhile, but you just seem to keep getting deeper and deeper in this project. What's going on?"

"What? Oh..." Blair visibly dragged himself back from distant cerebral regions. "I'm sorry, Jim; did you say something?"

"Yeah, Junior; what are you working on so hard? You said it's for 'the guys at work' -- your work or mine? Just what's going through that brain of yours?"

"Well, you know all the computers at the PD use Microsoft Word for word processing?" The question was rhetorical; Blair had heard Jim complaining about the program's unhelpfulness whenever he tried to use it for something new. "Now, once someone is comfortable with Word, it's a flexible and powerful program. But it's also a confusing tangle of commands and features. It's all the fault of the programmers, really; computer geeks aren't usually very good communicators, and the first versions weren't terribly easy for the average user to understand. It pretty much took another geek to feel secure with using it... and yes, Jim, I admit it -- I am a geek." He grinned at his friend, completely relaxed and well-launched into 'lecture mode'.

Jim returned the grin, sat back, and prepared to ride out the storm. He realized that he didn't even object to the mini-lesson; Sandburg's expositions were usually informative and entertaining, even though they might not seem to pertain to whatever matter was at hand.

"When those early users complained, Microsoft tried to 'fix' the program to make it a little easier to use. Unfortunately, they didn't rewrite it -- they just slapped on a few 'virtual patches'. But the patches were written by the original geeks who had poor communication skills in the first place, so the patches caused other problems, so they updated again with more patches, new editions -- still not doing a complete overhaul and rewrite -- and more new editions, until today we have the program that people love to hate. And it's too bad, really, because Word is a pretty flexible program, but it's not always intuitive, and it tends to intimidate people. It doesn't help that Microsoft has so thoroughly entwined all the pieces together -- it tends to make some of the parts sort of unstable, and people have lots of problems if they try to 'take out' the parts they don't want and substitute something else, like a different e-mail program. In fact --"

"All right, Chief, I've heard all the stories." Enough was enough; if he didn't get Sandburg back to the original question, neither of them would get to bed before dawn. "What does this have to do with four nights of slaving over the laptop? In twenty sentences or less, please."

"Well, people keep asking, you know? How to double-space, or how to change the font size, or whatever. And I don't mind helping out, really I don't, and neither do the others who have enough word processing knowledge -- like Rhonda -- but we're not always around. I thought I'd make up a short 'cheat-sheet' -- real simple directions, easy to understand -- for people to refer to for the common, basic problems, but... well... I keep thinking of more things to add and it just keeps growing."

"But, Chief, there are already books to explain that stuff. The 'Computers for Dummies', and like that. Why not just suggest that people get one of those? Aren't you simply rehashing the same old things? Seems like you have better uses for your time. If you really need more typing to do, there's still several unfinished reports on my desk."

"Have you ever looked in one of those books, Jim? Yeah, they're pretty simple, but they can still be intimidating -- maybe three hundred pages, and the stuff you don't need hides the stuff you're looking for. My cheat-sheet will be lots smaller -- maybe twenty-five or thirty pages -- and it will cover just the things that people want to do on a daily basis. And, not to blow my own horn..." he flashed his friend another grin, "... but if I can simplify explanations enough for college freshmen to understand, I can do the same for a bunch of cops. I think it'll be the perfect combination of geekdom and communication."

"So then what, Chief? You won't be able to use your computer much if it's tied up printing out multiple copies of your 'cheat-sheet'. And don't even think about using the one on my desk; I expect it to be available when I need it, not when it's finished printing out your little effort at creative writing."

"Hey, give me a little credit, man! One thing a teacher learns is paperwork organization. I figure I'll print out one good copy. Then Rhonda can Xerox a copy for everyone in Major Crime, and maybe half a dozen extra. I'll drop the extras off with the secretaries in the other departments, and they can make copies for their people. You'll see -- once I finish writing the thing, it's out of our hair. No problems at all."

Jim grunted skeptically, but let the matter drop. He knew that Sandburg would be more involved in the distribution than he imagined, but if the kid wanted to waste his energy like that, so be it. He headed up to bed, leaving Sandburg to keep working on his not-so-little 'cheat-sheet'.

Blair leaned back in his chair and stretched till his joints popped as he watched the pages sliding out of the printer. Nice weather had enticed the students outside, so he had used his office hours to put the final touches on the 'Word Tips' project. He was finished... or at least he'd quit. Additional ideas were crowding his brain, begging to be included, but if he didn't draw the line somewhere, he would be re-writing 'Word for Dummies'. "Remember, you gotta 'Keep It Simple, Stupid'," he admonished himself. "If it gets too cumbersome, no one will use it, and all this work will be wasted."

He picked up the pages and inspected them with a half-grin of mingled pride and chagrin. It looked good, but Jeez! It had grown bigger than he'd intended -- fifty pages, for Pete's sake! -- far too many to simply staple together. Besides, he wanted these booklets to have a permanent place on his friends' desks; they should be put together by something more durable than a staple in the corner. Hmm... I think Office Max is having a sale this week. Maybe I can find something there that won't strain the ol' budget...

He glanced at the clock; office hours were officially over. Blair grabbed his backpack, loaded it quickly, and headed out the door. He could swing by Office Max on the way home; they'd probably have a solution for his little problem.

A few days later, Jim examined the results of Blair's hard work. He was holding a respectably-sized booklet; Blair had even produced a title page and index, and compiled the whole thing in the clear plastic 'report cover' used by high school and college students. He made a mental note to treat Blair to lunch or dinner several times over the next couple of weeks, to help offset the costs of the copying and report covers; Jim didn't want Blair to short himself because of his generosity to his friends.

Glancing around the room, he noticed that every person in Major Crime had a copy on his desk or in his hands. And people were actually reading it; as he extended his hearing, Jim heard murmurs of, "Way to go, Hairboy, just what I needed!" and, "Good show, Sandy -- this'll be a big help for all of us." Examining the 'evidence', Jim had to agree. The kid had done his usual bang-up job of report-writing -- although a little wordy, as usual -- and the information looked both useful and easy to follow. But -- Jim looked around again -- Blair hadn't even stayed to collect a round of 'thanks'. Typical; how could one man be so knowledgably verbose and so self-effacing at the same time?

The following day, Jim was pleased to realize that people weren't ignoring Blair's efforts to make their lives easier. Gifts started appearing on his desktop, with 'Thank You, Blair' notes prominently displayed -- a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies, another of dark, rich fudge, a selection of herbal tea packages, and even -- someone had certainly done his or her homework -- a new ink cartridge for Blair's printer.

He also noticed some whispering in corners, with occasional furtive glances in his direction. For politeness' sake, Jim kept his hearing at normal levels, but the few words he overheard convinced him that 'the gang' was planning another surprise when Blair arrived later that afternoon from Rainier. His suspicions were confirmed when Henri sauntered over and 'casually' asked, "Hey, Ellison, what time's Hairboy comin' in today?" Jim stifled a grin -- H really didn't do 'subtle' very well -- as he answered, "I think he finishes his office hours at one-thirty today; he should be here about two or so."

As 'B-hour' approached, Jim felt an undercurrent of anticipation in the room. Discrete observation showed him that the others had their attention split between their unfinished work and the bullpen door.

At 1:55, Blair bounced into Major Crime and headed toward Jim. "Hey, cookies!" he exclaimed when he spotted the offerings on the desk. "And fudge! How did you rate that, Jim? You're not going to hog it all to yourself, are you?" He dropped his backpack next to the desk and reached for the plate of fudge.

"Take a closer look, Chief. Seems to me that it's your name on these plates; I think people are trying to say 'thank you'."

Blair's startled look around the room seemed to be the signal that everyone was waiting for. They broke into a round of applause and a rousing chorus of "For he's a jolly good fellow" as they clustered around him.

Blair blushed slightly as he grinned at his friends and protested, "Gee, thanks guys, but you didn't have to do this. It's not that big a deal."

"Don't be silly," Megan admonished. "It's a very big deal, and we all appreciate the help. We just wanted to let you know."

"Yeah, Hairboy, you 'done good'," Henri assured him, with a slap on the back. "Now, you're not going to eat all those goodies yourself, are you?"

"Well, I don't know, H; we starving grad students can't afford to be giving away free food, you know." He flashed another smile around the group. "On the other hand, Naomi always taught me to share... so dig in, everybody!"

The reaching hands -- that resembled nothing so much as a grade school free-for-all -- were interrupted when a deep voice proclaimed, "Playtime's over kiddies; I'm sure you all have better things to do than feed your faces." Simon growled as he added, "And if you know what's good for you, there'll be some fudge left when I reach the plate."

The captain smirked as the others stepped aside -- Rank Hath Its Privileges, after all. He carefully selected the second-largest piece of fudge for himself, then nudged the plate so that the largest piece was next to Blair's hand. "Good work, Sandburg. I look forward to the increase in productivity out of these clowns -- starting now!" His sweeping scowl sent everyone back to their own desks. "You too Sandburg; I need that report ASAP." Simon winked at the young man and headed back to the sanctuary of his own office.

With no one watching, Jim smiled as his friend sat down to type up the Quintalli report while munching on the largest piece of fudge. Sometimes he was astounded by the depth of caring that Blair showed for all the people around him -- yet Blair himself didn't even notice.

Jim shook his head fondly; despite the excitement, it was just another day in the life of an ordinary grad student -- and an extraordinary friend.

The End

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