Katherine was almost a mother.
Almost, but not quite, since she had adopted these kids by getting into a relationship with a boy that was not the real father of these kids. Almost, but not quite, since she was about the same age as most of them.
She had been their friend, simple and sarcastic and nice, while the strike was going on. There had been something wonderful about celebrating the Newsies making the front page. Katherine had never had many friends who didn't try to slow her down, but these boys made her go faster than she had known she was capable of going. She had fallen in love with them a little, hearing them talk about what they wanted fame to bring them.
They had fallen in love with her a little, watching her kiss Jack into staying in New York.
It took Katherine ages to realize that her role had shifted with that kiss. All of the changes had happened so gradually that it didn't occur to her that they had happened at all until she did something so motherly that she could hardly breathe.
The Delancey brothers, vainly trying to scrounge up whatever little pride they had left, had lashed out even harder against the Newsies in the aftermath of the strike. Most of the boys would retaliate, but some of them weren't quite fast enough when caught off guard. Crutchie, his back to the brothers as he sprinkled a little of the bread from his sandwich on the sidewalk for the birds, was caught unawares when Oscar kicked his crutch out from under him.
He hadn't made a sound when they laughed. His eyes were wide, his lips trembling a bit, but he was silent as they walked away. If he had fought back, she might have been okay. If he had tried to laugh it off, the tension in her chest may have shifted to something almost like pity. Instead he laid there, almost like he thought that being perfectly still would mean that nobody saw him, and dragged himself over to the nearest wall to hoist himself up.
She jogged over to him, promising herself that she would print a few Wanted posters of the Delanceys that accused them of something pathetic, like public urination or being caught trying on corsets in a store. She was willing to bet that Race and Jack would help her hang them up in the middle of the night, probably snickering all the while.
"Hey, Crutchie, are you alright? I swear, if I was a boy, he would be trying to see through one swollen eye," she groused.
Crutchie looked stricken by her presence. "Oh, Katherine, no. No, I'm fine."
She scanned him, but it was hard to tell what damage had been done. Her boys were so grubby all the time that being pushed to the ground hardly mucked them up more than usual. "Lift up your pant leg."
"Nah, I'm fine, honest." He wouldn't meet her eyes. As furious and narrow as her eyes were getting, nobody would have blamed him.
He slowly, regretfully, rolled up the cuff of his pants to reveal a long patch of bleeding shin. "It's not so bad," he said earnestly.
"That little son of a-" she seethed. She cut herself off, licked her lips thoughtfully, and loosened the necktie she wore.
"What are you doing?" he asked. He watched apprehensively as she ran to a street vendor, bought a bottle of water, and doused the tie on her way back.
She wiped away the dust and gravel that had embedded itself into his weeping wound. He hissed a little, but she didn't pause to let him get his bearings. She had dressed enough of her own scrapes to know that waiting didn't make it feel any better. Her own mother had never been one for putting on bandages, so Katherine almost wasn't sure how to go about dressing him up.
"Those boys are just jealous," she told him as she cleared away the last of the blood that had trickled down his leg.
He scoffed a little. "Jealous of a crip?"
"Jealous of a boy with more friends than they have. Jealous of a boy with people looking after him." She brushed the debri off of the tie, smoothed it out, and started wrapping it around his leg.
He had been humming a little, thoughtful, but his eyes bulged as she tried to knot the fabric. "You don't have to! I don't need it. Katherine, really, it's fine."
"It isn't fine. None of that was fine, and you being hurt isn't fine, and I am going to fix it," she said as she yanked on the ends of the tie. She probably wasn't going to be able to wear it again, but she could come by a replacement easily enough. "There we go," she crooned. Katherine leaned over, pressed a firm kiss against the covered scrape, and nodded resolutely.
A second passed.
Crutchie looked at her, eyes wide, and the reality of what she had done sank in. She had kissed his leg. She had cleaned up an injury, bandaged it up, and kissed it. A heated flush spread up her neck, but she met his eyes levelly. "Come on," she said lightly. "There's a guy selling ice cream on 8th today, and I just got paid. I've got a craving. You in?"
His cheeks were a little pink, but his bashful, disbelieving grin made it worth it. "Really? You wanna get ice cream? Sure!"
She asked Crutchie what headlines he had made up that day, but only half listened to his answers. There was an ache in her chest, but not a bad one. She had kissed his leg without thinking about it. She didn't do anything without thinking about it first. She overthought everything, but when Crutchie was hurt, her instinct was to kiss away the pain.
She felt like a mom. Not like a mother, like she had had, but a real mom. Upon that realization, it occurred to her that she had been acting like a mom to these boys for weeks.
She made sure the boys washed their hands before they ate.
She had discreetly bought Specs a new pair of shoes after the strike, putting them on his pillow while he was out selling so he wouldn't know it was her that got them. (He knew it was her. They all did. They just never talked about it, and she never asked him why he offered to walk her home if Jack wasn't around when she visited.)
She bought Albert a glass of seltzer when he got caught out in the rain, soaking his papes so thoroughly that he could not sell them to the customers or back to Weasel.
She had slaved in the kitchen for hours the night before Race's birthday, trying to make him a perfect birthday cake when she found out he had never had one. (It was chocolate, and the blue frosting was sticky and uneven, but he had given her a smacking kiss on the cheek afterwards. The blue from his lips had stained her cheek the rest of the night.)
When she heard that one of the boys was sick, she would sell for them for a day to let them rest without losing any money.
She had become their mom sometime between the strike and Crutchie being pushed to the ground, and now that she had figured it out, she couldn't just stop. Even as she bought Crutchie an ice cream cone, she wondered if picking up an extra column would get her enough extra money to take out a Newsie every week.
Jack was never going to let her live it down.