When we meet in early March, Gemini has just been hired to work part time at D.C.‘s new ballpark alongside the Anacostia. Orientation begins in an hour. Enough time for her to ask, again, if the dentist has called. Enough time to tell me she’s “drained out.” Enough time to read us a new poem.

Lines like “Catch you here, catch you there, but so many secrets everywhere … This world is stupid, this world is strange, I want to crawl under that hole and die in alcoholic flames” get Little D snapping her fingers. But Gemini reads as if in a room alone. The words come fast and she squints to make out the ones crowding into the margins. The late-afternoon light catches her face, revealing just how dark the shadows under her eyes have grown. She finishes, smiling. The shadows recede.

“It’s long, but good,” Little D tells her. She encourages Gemini to submit it to a poetry contest she saw advertised. But Gemini has no time for submitting poetry.

Gemini started college in March, moved into her cousin’s place, and accepted this second job at the stadium. It’s an enormous load to juggle, but she needs the money. “I’ve got two kids. How am I supposed to live off that living stipend?” She begins reading the Post’s horoscope section before we can respond.

Little D didn’t get a stadium job, but she’s put out applications and taken a nursing-program entrance exam. She can name three fields of interest—nursing, EMT, and culinary arts—and steps she’s taking to try and enter them. But the more I ask, the more her voice trails off. Finally, Gemini changes the subject.

“I was supposed to go to Miami for spring break. It doesn’t look like that’ll happen.”

Little D looks from her to me and back. “But do we get spring break with ECC?”

“No.” Gemini won’t look up from the horoscopes.

“Then why’re we going anywhere?” Little D presses.

“That’s what I’m saying. We’re not going anywhere.” But a smile begins to creep into Gemini’s face. She sees where this questioning, at least, is going.

“No. We don’t get break. We get no break. So why would we go anywhere anyway?” Little D asks, giggling.

Gemini sets down the horoscopes and laughs along. This banter, a well-rehearsed routine, plays throughout their days together. It helps them coast over rough moments that might tip them into a funk. In early March, they can still avoid that tipping point.

While they’ve not yet tipped into a slump, Elaya’s not yet out of hers. The e-mails and calls have dropped off. Her college counselor expresses concerns. She comes to school less. She remains in Maryland, with a friend. But she has found a new job. If this job holds, and her schoolwork doesn’t drop off any further, I’ll hear from her soon. Elaya was part of the original threesome, with Charles and Matthew, and our talks of the elusive happy ending in stories. She plans to write her own happy ending, even if it takes longer than expected, and bring me good news of her progress along the way. This much I believe and can share with Little D each time she asks about Elaya.

The dentist saves the day in mid-March. He agrees to implant the replacement tooth at no cost to Gemini. When I text her, she replies within seconds: “u made my dreams come true.” We talk later, and she is walking on air over having had this one dream realized. We are all walking on air. But the happiness makes what happens next all the harder, and perhaps all the more inevitable.

First, Little D texts me. “Hi. R u busy?” Then, minutes later: “If u can, can u call me ASAP?” Before I can, Gemini postpones our meeting, scheduled for that day. When I get Little D on the phone, she’s riding the metro somewhere. Before she can tell me where, or why she’s taken the initiative to contact me for the first time ever, the connection’s cut.

Gemini appears for this rescheduled meeting without Little D. Another first. Before I can ask where Little D is, Gemini’s covering her face with her hands, and trying, with some success, not to cry. A third first, all within three days, after knowing these young women five months. Once she catches her breath, I ask what’s happened.

The ache, if not the actual events, comes down to family, in that way that those we trust the most can shame us for “getting too big for our britches,” stretching too far, or maybe grabbing the chance to transform the smile you’ve hated showing the world since the day you lost your tooth. It comes down to being young enough to not yet have the proper defense against words, however well intentioned, that can confuse, derail, and hurt. And, finally, it comes down to trying to pull yourself up and not let anyone flip the script on you.

“Words have transpired, but really nothing else is wrong. I’ve been in way worse situations in the past.” She shrugs. She looks away. We move to a safer topic: the tooth and what life’s been like without it. “I got into fights over it. Everywhere. On the street. Something happens and then it comes out.”

She gives me a quick rundown of how a fight can evolve, from the bystanders egging them on, to the squaring up of the two fighters, to the inevitable grabbing of clothes or hair if the two fighting are girls. Gemini learned how at home, as did Little D.

“Everyone in our family fought. Girls, boys, boys with the boys, girls with the girls. If I meet a family that never physically fights, I’ll think something’s wrong with them. I grew up around it, so it’s what I’m used to. I haven’t seen it [a nonfighting family]. Even the Addams Family fought.”

She may have a point. Or we may need to watch some reruns to remember how at least one TV family settles arguments. But Gemini doesn’t have time. She often can’t begin her homework until after midnight. She makes the 3 a.m. posting deadline with minutes to spare. Her son’s school and her ECC work begin six hours later. Before that, she has to sleep, if she can.

After staying as long as she can, Gemini pulls an “Elaya” on me. She asks me to call when I get home so she knows I got there OK. I want to tell her it’s still daylight. I can make my way home as easily as I could button my coat the day Elaya tried to do it for me. The last day I saw Elaya. But that’s not what Gemini’s asking is about.

Little D brings her 6-year-old sister to our Sunday meeting. We’re in a Baskin-Robbins staffed by an exceptionally patient lady who gives her at least a dozen samples while we talk. I met Little D’s sister at the ECC’s Thanksgiving alumni reunion, where she ran a close second in the “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” dance contest. Now, she’s the upbeat part of an otherwise quiet conversation.

“March was OK,” Little D tells me. “Just the same old thing.” This is the longest Little D has held a job, and she imagines that getting a new job would improve things. Her sister strut-walks around, a spoonful of fudge-truffle ice cream in hand. I ask Little D what she was like at that age. “I can’t even remember that far.”

She tells me of days she hasn’t gone into work because she needs sleep. She may go in the following day, but she’s not sure. More quiet.

As the 6-year-old darts back and forth, Little D talks of the problems she was having with family, how she stayed away at a friend’s house in her old neighborhood, but that everything’s better now. “Really? You’re sure?” I ask. She nods, looks away. Her sister crashes into us. For a moment, the cloud lifts off Little D’s face.

Her little sister draws pictures and Little D makes a point to study each. She asks why no one has hands and shoes. This artist sees no need to answer to us, though. Soon enough, we have a tableful of shoeless men and long-haired women walking on napkins. Only when her sister skips away, this time for rainbow sherbet, does Little D begin to dance around the questions she wants to ask.

One by one, doled out between her sister’s interruptions, they come. How to locate a mentor, someone who can help her sort things out. Directions for sending e-mails. A link to these dispatches, so she can show them to family who don’t believe her voice has found a home. Easily answered questions. “Anything else?” I ask.

A pause. She shakes her head. “No.”

Before I can press her on this, her sister returns, asking what my BlackBerry’s for. “Taking your picture,” I say. She leans into Little D, wedges her head underneath her chin, and stares at me, waiting for magic to happen. The BlackBerry whirs. Their faces fill the screen.

“What’d she do?” Little D asks. “I know she did something.”

“No,” I assure her. “It’s like she’s got a secret. See her expression?”

Little D giggles, finally, briefly. They soon leave, one dancing while the other stares straight ahead, concentrating on something she’s still not sharing, that no one can help with until she does.

Gemini calls that night. She’s worked the opening Nationals game at the new ballpark. “The views [of the Anacostia and the city] are beautiful. If you actually walk the whole stadium, it takes three hours. It doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen in D.C.” Her juggling act and home situation continue to challenge her. “It’s easy to say you’ll do it, but the effort’s the hard part. My mentor thinks I should stop school for a while, but I won’t. I quit once before. I won’t do it again.”

As she yawns into the phone, I pull up the photo of Little D and the 6-year-old dancing machine. It’s only 9:30, but Gemini thinks she can sleep. I study the hint of a smile on Little D’s face, the hesitation in her eyes, as if she’s not sure how much to smile, and the certainty in her younger sister’s gaze. Even though Little D can’t remember being 6, I believe she once wore just as certain an expression. And, as surely as Gemini is trying to sleep more and pull out of her slump, Little D can find a way out of hers, too.