Note: Inspired by an episode of M*A*S*H and a passage of the WSS novelisation; this was thought up after I started wondering why Ice was created in the film for the purpose - as I see it - of taking over the gang. After all, why couldn't Action do it? And then you look at movieverse Action and realise that was never going to happen, bless him... Also answers the question of why Action never tries bucking for leadership of the gang himself. For viennacantabile and LazyChestnut, whose fics both make me laugh out loud and give such lovely encouragement.
...With increasing frequency Action had begun to wonder if he ought to challenge Riff for the leadership of the Jets. But if he did, and was successful, he would have to tell the Jets what to do, really lead them...
...Because Riff had to work at being a leader, the Jets were a close, well-knitted bunch, and none of the white gangs on other blocks wanted to tangle with them... - West Side Story novelisation
1: The Young and the Restless
If Action wasn't fourth-in-command and a lethal ball of unexploded energy, A-Rab thought sourly, he would have sedated his best friend a long time ago. As it was, he merely slumped down further in his chair, holding his lousy hand of ace-high up to his face so he didn't have to see the lieutenant pace about Doc's like a caged firework. Opposite him, thumbing through his cards with an extremely malicious smirk flitting about his face – which A-Rab did not like the look of one bit, no thankyou sir – Snowboy rolled his eyes.
Sometimes, just sometimes, it was ok just to hang at their designated clubhouse and not do anything. A-Rab lazily scanned over the cramped space of the drugstore, counting Jets – Baby John thumbing through a comic book, some of the girls sipping soda, Tiger playing solitaire, Ice huddled by the juke – and nodded; none of the guys were itching to go, go, go. A lazy Sunday afternoon meant just that, lazing around doing nothing in particular, and not caring if they weren't prowling the neighbourhood busting heads.
Try telling that to Action though.
"C'mon, c'mon, what's the action?" The Jet threw a dart savagely, so it hit the dartboard with a resounding crack. "Are we the Jets or ain't we?"
Joyboy looked up from the girlie magazine he was eagerly thumbing through. "Cut it, Action."
The back of his hand promptly cracked into Joyboy's skull, knocking him off balance. "Pipe down," Action growled, before promptly smacking his fist into his palm with such a sharp thwack that Baby John nearly jumped off his chair. "I mean it – we've been poopin' around too long without gettin' cookin' – now where the devil're Riff 'n To – "
A-Rab groaned as he slumped forward, throwing his cards on the table with a violent gesture. If Action's restless temper wasn't bad enough, Ice was definitely bugging the lot of them with his constant sneezing. Lingering outside for too long in the middle of the night for weeks on end (his suspicion pinned that little fact on Velma) had brought Ice down with a hell of a cold; and the hefty lieutenant was now miserably huddled by the jukebox, spluttering and coughing at every miserable opportunity, eyes and nose streaming and Velma cooing over him like some goddamn angel of mercy. He grumpily flicked up the collar of his jacket, making a disgruntled face. No Riff, no Tony, and no Ice in good enough shape to tell Action where to go. Well wasn't that just dandy.
"I mean it," Action hissed between gritted teeth, dark eyes glowering furiously at Ice as though personally blaming the ailing Jet for interrupting his monologue. "Nothin's been happenin' around here for ages – why the hell ain't we out there on the prowl?"
"You're cruisin' for a bruisin'," A-Rab retorted tensely, shifting as though all the wires in his body had been pulled taut. Hanging around Action for a length of time made any atmosphere seem tense and jumpy.
Not a second too soon, he ducked as Action's fist came sailing neatly where his skull had been half a moment ago. "I'd like ta see ya try – "
"Cool it Action!" Ice snapped sharply, managing to sound his irritation even through a cracked, clogged voice.
Stepping back slowly, Action knotted his fingers together, making his knuckles crack. "Go ahead, big man, tell me off." From the corner of his eye, A-Rab spotted Tiger and Mouthpiece straighten up uneasily, and felt his own muscles tighten. In-fighting was all very well and good, and a source of entertainment when there was nothing else going down, but right now everyone's nerves were getting just that little bit too tense to treat it as just a bit of fun. Besides, no-one wanted Action replacing Ice as third – going on second, if the rumours about Tony were true – in command. "Well, you gonna teach me a lesson, huh?"
"Shuddup, Action!" The entire cohort of the Jets chorused darkly. Action's searching for trouble was pissing just about everyone off. A scrunched up paper bag sailed over the counter and hit Action squarely in the eye.
The reaction was instantaneous. Whirling around, clenching a pop bottle in his fist, Action sought out the perpetrator hotly, frame tensed and eyes flashing fire. He found it in a grinning Big Deal, and took two steps forward, close to bubbling over. "Right, you little – "
"Cool it little man!" How the hell Riff managed to sneak up on them without notice was beyond him – certainly their second-in-command made himself known whenever possible – but there he was, sliding through the door as if he'd never been away. Winking to the cluster of Jet girls at the counter, he seized two handfuls of Action's shirt and jerked him back into place. Good thing too, A-Rab thought dryly; Action was an explosive ball of anger, but Big Deal was a whole meter taller than him. "What's goin' down here?"
Action jerked a thumb towards Ice, who promptly coughed at him. "He started it."
Most gang leaders, A-Rab observed, could barely sit safe in their current position because they had a whole host of lieutenants jockeying for position. With Ice and Action, however, there was no need for Riff to worry. Ice was so cool he was frozen, and with Action – well, he burnt himself out so easy that if you took a step backwards you didn't have to worry. His on-going one-upmanship with Ice was enough to keep any ambition at bay, and Riff could pretty much sit easy.
Rolling his eyes, Riff catapulted Action neatly into a chair. "Save it Action," he reprimanded, before threading his fingers through themselves and clasping his hands at the base of his skull. Almost unconsciously, the Jets leaned forward. With Tony giving them the flick more and more lately, Riff was bouncing straight to their head without even a second thought, and boy, you could really tell. He was keeping things popping, just like the good old days when Tony was at top form. "Listen up buddy boys, you're gonna wanna hear this. Tony's old lady and his uncle want ta take a holiday for a coupla days…"
He paused to glare pointedly at Snowboy. "As a matter of factuality, it is – they're takin' me and Tony with." As one, the boys twitched enviously – holidays were rare enough; having one with your buddy and his old lady (who always had a soft spot for Riff) was close to heaven. "So from tomorrow, Ice is temporary commander, buddy boys."
The gang looked slowly at Ice. Ice sneezed again.
Tiger raised his brows dryly. "Ya know, somehow I just don't see that happenin'."
"Me neither!" Jumping to her feet from where she'd been crouched over a miserable Ice, Velma glared furiously at Riff until he took an uneasy step backwards. With her cool blue eyes narrowed and fists clenched in a way that suggested serious business, she could have made a good second lieutenant right then and there. "Riff, he ain't well enough to lead the Jets! Look at him, he's sick!"
Velma was so devoted to Ice that he could have had a paper cut and she'd be yelping about it. However, A-Rab had to admit as he glanced over at an ailing Ice, skin clammy and almost grey, the guy did not look good. Any Jet who was willing to let his girl speak up for him had to be near death.
Riff, in a show of solidarity with his pal, gave him the once over. "He don't look too shoddy," he muttered, even if his eyes said different.
"He's sick. The only thing he's gonna be doin' is stayin' in bed," Velma muttered darkly.
"I'll bet," A-Rab snickered in an undertone. As Velma glowered venomously at him, he meekly subsided.
Hiding his own chuckle, Riff gave Ice a sympathetic look. "Whaddaya thinkin', buddy boy?"
Ice grinned weakly, nearly cringing with embarrassment. "Tell ya the truth, Daddy-O, the only thing I feel fit to do now is open a bottle of cough medicine." A-Rab, so used to seeing the great, solid Ice as an unflappable block of strength, nearly felt sorry for him.
Nearly did, until his trail of logic followed where Riff would turn next, and started feeling sorry for himself instead.
Swivelling on his heels, Riff pointed his fingers towards Action, who had been watching the entire exchange with an undisguised look of disdain on his face "Fine. Ice, you're off the hook – Action, you're temporary leader."
There it was.
"I'm the who?" Action repeated, looking just as stunned as the rest of the Jets. A-Rab could well understand it – making little plays to tell Riff what to do was one thing, actually taking charge and leading the Jets, really showing them what to do, was another.
From where he'd been wiping down glasses and generally staying out of the action, Doc raised his brows doubtfully. "There go the Jets."
For once, the fiery teen was so unnerved that he didn't even bother to give Doc hell for the sally, instead continuing to gape imploringly at Riff. "Who, me?" He gestured swiftly in A-Rab's direction. "What about A-Rab?"
Not him. A-Rab flicked his hand disdainfully, slouching down in his chair with a snort. "I don't want it."
Riff grinned. If he didn't know him better, A-Rab would have sworn he was enjoying this. "Good enough for me."
"I ain't fit for command!" A-Rab sniggered, his grin spreading all the more as Action's cheeks turned a dusky shade of red. Oh boy, someone was going to suffer for this, and it was probably going to be him. "Now, if you want someone to keep things cookin', Action's your boy, Riff…"
"You got seniority, Action." Riff chuckled, cutting across A-Rab with a swift gesture. Good thing too, A-Rab decided – too much more from him and Action would either have bust a vein or throttled him. "And you're stuck with it, whether ya like it or not."
Action folded his arms huffily across his chest. "But I dunno how to give orders!"
"Nothing worth worrying about," Doc chuckled from his sanctuary behind the counter, "none of you hoodlums know how to take 'em." With another grin he slipped out to the cellar as Action lunged at him.
Still sniggering, A-Rab signalled for Riff's attention. "Hey Riff, how long d'ya reckon you'll be gone?"
"About a week."
"We'll leave a sign where Doc's was." He grinned, and then ducked as Action rounded on him again.
You've really got to love Action...