A/N: Part I is pre-Curse of the Black Pearl. James is a captain so this is after the Swanns came to the island. My explanation is that James was part of their escort as lieutenant, but his position on Port Royal became permanent soon after with his promotion.
Officially, he shouldn't have been patrolling this part of the island. It was beneath his new station here at Port Royal; this task usually was reserved for lazy or troublesome men, as even the thought of stumbling on their own through the rockier sections was enough to teach them a lesson.
But this was his new port: his command. James was ready for his new assignment, but before he fully accepted the responsibility his position carried, he needed to know the lay of the land.
He walked for several hours as he made a clear map in his mind of the island's shore, noting possible refuges and landing spots. Pirate activity was still frequent in these parts, and he wanted to make sure he and his men were ready for an attack from any direction.
He wasn't wearing his naval colors on this venture, as there was no one around to observe or follow his lead. Besides, he was willing to admit certain aspects of his uniform were impractical for trekking through the tropical island. Boots, trousers, his normal undershirt and a simple black overcoat that fell over his belt where he carried his sword and a knife. And – dare he say it– it was nice to forego his ivory wig. He'd taken to wearing it upon his promotion, as it helped him carry an air of authority and thus, the respect that came with it. But he was still young, and functionally did not require it to hide a balding head. No, it was rather nice to feel the actual breeze caressing him for once.
He left behind the thicker, unsettled trees that surrounded the growing port and began traversing his way through rocky terrain. There were quite a few unstable areas, and James was relieved to be alone so he could resort to more physical manners to climb over obstacles than he would if in front of his men.
It was after he bypassed the last outcropping before the shoreline that he heard it: a wet, slapping sound, coming from the direction of the surf. As he lifted himself up and swung his legs over the stones, he found the area to be a secluded cove. Perhaps there was some washed up debris, or possibly an injured animal. He continued forward, wanting to see the source of this commotion.
There was no way for James to be prepared by what he saw when he finally caught sight of the full stretch of sand before him.
James shook himself slightly to remind himself that he was indeed awake and sober, but when he blinked and looked again, the creature was still there. But… that shouldn't be possible.
The slapping sound continued as the creature's reflective tail hit the wet sand in an off-beat rhythm. It thrashed back and forth, back arching as it whimpered and snarled before rocking on to one side. It seemed too preoccupied to be any danger to him, so James crept forward slowly to examine closer.
He was only several paces away when the reality of the situation wormed through his shock. This mermaid appeared to be a young woman… a very nude young woman.
James did his best to avert his eyes to preserve her modesty, and in the process his gaze drifted south, following the motion of her body and tail as she struggled. He was near enough now to see what was causing her panic: a taut but thin fisherman's net wrapped around her form, binding her arms to her sides in a twisted positioning. The line seemed to have tightened with her thrashing, and along her sun-kissed skin and even her scales, red streaks were beginning to form. It was cutting into her. James felt bile rise in his throat in horror.
He couldn't just stand there and do nothing.
She startled when he knelt next to her, finally within her line of sight. Her mouth opened in a snarl, opalescent and sharpened teeth bared in defense. James knew she was likely frightened and only reacting on instinct, so he slowly raised his hands to show he was unarmed. He hoped his meaning was understood as he watched her eyes flicker between his hands and face.
"It's alright," he said slowly. "I mean you no harm."
She glared at him and fought against her bindings harder, hissing in anger.
James waited as patiently as possible, despite the rising worry over her well-being. He hoped she'd calm once seeing he posed no immediate threat, or at the very least, wear herself out. Keeping his hands purposefully limp and his gaze steady, he watched with budding hope as the mermaid slowed to a stop and tilted her head to stare at him defiantly.
"I'm going to draw my knife," James began to explain, before his brain caught up to him and he frowned slightly. "Can you… understand me?"
The mermaid didn't speak, but she did nod jerkily and remain still as he shifted nearer.
"Alright, then," he murmured, voice filled with perplexion over what he was about to do. "I'm going to use my knife to cut you free, but you must remain still. I don't wish to harm you any further."
He could feel her wariness settle on his shoulders like bricks when he brought the blade against her skin, the cool metal sending a shiver up her spine as he slid it under the fishing line. He had never been more grateful for his strict routine in caring for his weapons, as the sharpened edge easily severed the twisted ropes.
James worked slowly but methodically, cutting through the most painful-looking bonds before moving onto the rest. He did his best to keep his hand between the mermaid's flesh and his knife, wanting to keep his word on not harming her. She seemed to understand and did her best to remain still, despite the nervous trembles that shook through her tail.
When the final binding snapped free, James immediately pulled back, expecting her to turn and flee back to the ocean. Instead, she flicked her tail and raised her arms up above her head, a whine slipped free as she stretched. James felt his face turning warm again without a task to distract his gaze this close to her, but luckily he wasn't given long to be worried. Her webbed fingers are cool where they clasp onto his forearms, and immediately James' gaze focused fully on her.
He didn't move as her hands slide down to his wrists, turning his palms upwards and letting out a somber trilling sound at what she finds. James was too enraptured by her shimmering mahogany eyes to pay attention to himself. Why was she crying?
"Your hand," she murmured. "You are hurt."
Oh. He blinked and looked down at where she was holding him to see that he indeed was bleeding from a slice on his palm. How interesting. He'd cut his hand while protecting her without even noticing.
The mermaid carefully placed his hands in his lap before reaching up to tug on a braid of her dark hair from where it had been pressed against the back of her neck. There was something binding it throughout the entire length and around the ends, which after she pulled free, James realized was a strand of kelp. He jolted when she brought it to his skin and wrapped it firmly around his wound, her lip curved in a thoughtful frown.
She glanced up at him when she was finished. "You are alright now?" She echoed his earlier word unfamiliarly, mouth testing it for the first time.
"Yes, uh, thank you," he affirmed, stumbling over himself for the first time in recent years. "I'm… glad to see you are unharmed."
She looked faintly amused, but the expression was fleeting and in the blink of an eye, she returned to polite stoicism. "Thank you for helping me. I am grateful to you…" She trailed off uncertainly, and James winced at the fact that he'd never given his name.
"Norrington," he answered reflexively, but then chastised himself at giving his surname to someone who likely did not understand. "James," he amended. "My name is James."
Her voice lilted like a song as she said his name. A surge of pleasure coursed through him upon hearing it.
"I am Rissa," she replied, mischievously smiling as if there were a joke he wasn't privy to. "You are not what I expected," she continued.
His curiosity was piqued as her eyes searched his face. "What were you expecting?"
"Anger." A pause. "Violence. Greed."
James' stomach roiled uneasily as he considered what she must have seen to expect such things, but he wasn't ignorant. He knew the ways of sailors.
"But you are kind." Her head tipped as she observed him. "You are a good man, James Norrington."
James Norrington was a soldier, a sailor, a captain… a son. He knew this. It was written in his bones.
He wasn't evil, of that he was sure. But he wasn't good either.
"One good deed does not make a good man of me, miss."
James' brow furrowed. "Pardon?"
"My name," she said, slightly petulantly. "You are James," she pointed at him. "I am Rissa. No 'miss.'"
Right. He couldn't rely on his ingrained manners when they were not playing on the same game board. "Forgive me, Rissa." A part of him still twinged at the wrongness of him referring to her by only a single name. But, he figured, there was no propriety to break here in this secluded cove.
"Hm," she hummed. "How did you find this place? I have heard no one near until you."
He shifted awkwardly. "I was curious about the island. It's my responsibility to know the land now."
She made an understanding sound in the back of her throat. "Your responsibility?" Her fins flicked nervously.
"Yes, well… I was recently promoted to captain in His Majesty's Royal Navy," he said in a low voice, not meeting her eyes.
Rissa's gaze narrowed suspiciously. "You are not the ones with the nets and pointed spears. Your ships do battle in our waters with fire."
"I suppose that's true," James admitted.
"Do you enjoy it?"
"Do you enjoy battle?"
He'd never truly thought about it, never been asked so blatantly about it, until now. "Ah… no. I enjoy victory because it means I've brought my men back safely. But I don't enjoy fighting."
James tilted his head slightly. "What is?"
Rissa's smile returned slightly. "You, James. You are not what I expected from a pale man."
He couldn't help the way his brow furrowed at her description of him. "Thank you, I think."
This time he was rewarded with a full grin, Rissa's sharper teeth glinting in the sunlight as she tipped her head back in her laughter. "Yes," she agreed. It looked like she was primed to say something else, but James noticed she winced and seemed to wilt slightly, her adrenaline rush leaving her finally drained.
"Let me bring you back to the water," he murmured, holding his hands out to show his offer was genuine.
Rissa studied him for a silent moment before dipping her head in assent and slipping her palm into his. James marveled at how firm and confident her grip was– a very different behavior than the few European women he'd courted. The callouses she had were more ingrained than any of his, though that was less surprising when he considered the environment she lived in. Seaweed, debris, rocks… all were more than enough to leave their mark on her body.
He didn't want to be caught staring though, so James guided her to drape her arms over his shoulders before he braced his arms beneath her lower back and the first bend in her tail. With a sharp inhale, he rose to his feet, Rissa held securely in his grasp.
"You see the world from so high," she gasped, and James chuckled at her awe. He stood still for a minute while she looked around from her new vantage point, but he didn't want to prolong her time out of water any longer. She needed enough strength to return to her home.
It was with a twinge of disappointment that he waded into the warm water until it lapped at his waist. She should be able to swim easily from this depth.
Her soft voice drew his attention. "Thank you, James. I won't forget your kindness."
He tried to brush off her gratitude to hide the rising blush in his cheeks. Perhaps he could claim it as a consequence of a sunburn. "I did what anyone should do."
Rissa was quiet as he lowered her into the water, ensuring she was able to move comfortably before releasing her. He'd expected her to immediately flee, but instead she lazily swam in a slow circle around his legs, as if committing his entire form to memory. "Do not let the battles steal your heart, James. I would quite like to see who you become."
With that, he watched her disappear into the glittering waves.