Heartfelt thanks to Dick Wolf, Vincent D'Onofrio, Kathryn Erbe and the gang for letting me borrow what belongs to them - and to anyone who takes the time to read this.

Chapter 1 – Just Playing

Bobby Goren wiped the sweat that was stinging his eyes and slid his fingers along the side of his dark blue shorts. His gray T-shirt was too soaked to dry anything. Crouching slightly, he stepped up to within a few feet of Mike Logan, just enough so that he could cut off a quick move to the basket but not so much that he couldn't step in close in case Mike pulled up for a jump shot.

Mike smiled crookedly as he bounced the ball. "Think you can stop me, Goren?" he asked. "Two more points and you're finished."

"You haven't hit a layup on me yet," Bobby taunted. "Let's see you take a man's shot for once. Show me you can score from inside five feet."

"Right, buddy. You asked for it," Mike retorted, grinning wickedly. Suddenly he feinted right, then dribbled left and drove toward the hoop. Bobby went strong for the fake but recovered surprisingly quickly and moved to cut Mike off at a spot a few feet from the basket. As Mike leaped to lay the ball against the metal backboard, Bobby jumped and reached as high as he could. Mike pushed the ball softly off his fingertips, but the slight awkwardness of using his left hand and the interference of Bobby's arms caused him to miss the spot he was aiming for.

The ball hit the rim and bounced high, and Bobby spun to face the basket, using his body to keep Mike away from the rebound. They jumped, but Bobby's superior position assured that he would come down with the ball. Laughing joyously, he practically skipped away from the hoop to a fair distance from which to start his own move.

"Don't insult me with that lame left-handed shit, Logan!" Bobby exulted. "You can't beat me at my own game."

"It ain't over yet, Goren," Mike barked. "Let's see you prove you can hit from outside five feet!"

Mike stepped backward until he was almost under the basket, daring Bobby to shoot from a distance. "C'mon, Goren. Prove to me you've got a jump shot."

Summoning up his best I'm-annoyed-and-I'll-show-you expression as he suppressed another laugh, Bobby took a few steps toward the hoop and pulled up. Mike started moving as soon as Bobby did, closing the gap quickly enough that Bobby's 12-foot shot was not uncontested. Again, the ball hit the rim.

Bobby had followed his shot and was able to get a hip in front of Mike, but the ball bounced high and away from him, and that gave Mike enough of an edge to retrieve it. A full 20 feet from the basket, he whirled, rose into the air and flicked his wrist, sending the ball on a perfect arc that didn't even draw iron as it dropped through the hoop.

"Ballgame!" he yelled with a smirk of satisfaction. "You're toast again, Goren."

"Beautiful shot, Mike," Bobby said, shaking his head. "I think you could hit that all day if you wanted to."

"That's OK, kid," Mike said, clapping Bobby on the back as they walked to a small set of bleachers next to the court. "You keep watching me and practicing, and one day maybe you'll be able to shoot like that."

Grabbing a towel and wiping his face and his salt-and-pepper curls, Bobby laughed and poked Mike in the ribs. "And you keep watching me and practicing, and someday you'll learn how to rebound."

"Who needs that?" Mike retorted. "All the girls love us handsome, fast, slick shooters. Big lugs like you who anchor themselves under the basket never get any real action."

"You can have all that action," Bobby said with a shrug. "There's bound to be someone who appreciates the finer points of the game. That's the one I'll settle for."

"Hmm. Anyone in particular who might appreciate your finer points, Goren?"

"Knock it off, Mike. Otherwise I might have to point out that somebody might not care as much for you if she had to fight through a crowd of admirers all the time."

"Ouch. My, aren't we touchy," Mike said, feigning an injured look. "Seriously, Bobby, you let me have that last shot. You just stood there. Why didn't you come out and contest it?"

"I don't know. I just like to watch you shoot that jumper. I guess I just got caught up in watching and forgot that it was the winning shot," Bobby said, shrugging.

"Hey, man, where are your competitive instincts? You're a good player, Bobby, but sometimes I wonder if there's enough fight in you to be the best you can be."

"Aw, it's just for fun, Mike. I don't really feel that competitive about it," Bobby said, leaning back and putting his elbows on the second row. A cool breeze ruffled his curls, and he drew in a refreshing breath of late October air. They had been playing for almost two hours, and he felt comfortably tired after such a good workout.

Mike reached into a small cooler and handed Bobby a bottle of Gatorade. He took one for himself, and they both drank deeply. The small park was quiet for a city spot, with only a little bit of nearby traffic at midafternoon on a Saturday. An occasional shout could be heard in the distance, from some kids hanging out down the block.

Bobby closed his eyes and relaxed, enjoying the moment, feeling better than he had in a long time. He was vaguely aware that he was healing inside and a little surprised that it was happening as fast as it was. It had been five months since he had laid his mother to rest, since he had begun the tug of war between the pain, guilt and despair that had claimed most of his life and the love and hope for something better that the people close to him offered. In this moment, healthily weary, happily in the company of a good buddy and pleasantly anticipating the evening, which he would be able to spend with her, he had a sense that the latter team was winning the battle. A smile played at the corners of his mouth. His thoughts again went to her, as they so often did.

Mike slapped him on the knee, interrupting his reverie. "Hey, Bobby, don't fall asleep on me. If we don't head out now, one of us will still be in the shower when the girls get to your place."

"OK, Mike. We don't want to be late," Bobby agreed, rising to his feet. "Let's get going."