Ducky watched his young lab assistant out of the corner of his eye as he placed his bags in the van. Jimmy Palmer sat quietly, his head bowed and his glasses in his hand, in the passenger seat of the coroner's van. The dark bags under his eyes suggested to Ducky that the young man hadn't slept well for some time. The British ME was starting to worry, he'd never seen Jimmy like this before, it wasn't affecting his work, but still... the poor boy just looked so lost. Ducky sighed, got into the van and pulled out of NCIS, following the screeching tires that he knew was Gibbs and his team.

Pulling up at the military base, Ducky flashed his ID and was waved through. The 90 minute journey to the crime scene had been spent in an awkward silence. Ducky had tried a few times to draw Jimmy into a conversation, but to no avail. Sighing, Ducky hauled his bags out of the van, sidestepping slightly so Palmer could retrieve his bags. The two medics made their way in silence over to where Gibbs was standing, looking impatient.

"Took you long enough," Gibbs barked grumpily.

"Hello Jethro. Why yes, I'm fine, thank you for asking."

Gibbs just raised one silver eyebrow, giving the rambling ME a flat look. Tony, Kate and McGee all hid smiles. Ducky was about the only person on this earth who could get away with talking to Gibbs like that. Ducky returned the look with one of his own, dropped his bags by Gibbs' feet and ducked under the crime scene tape.

"Whom do we have here?" Ducky asked of the gruff ex-Marine.

"Petty Officer Daniel Souza. Didn't report back from shore leave. According to his CO he's never done that before. Corps buddies reported him missing 2 days ago. No wife or kids. Dinozzo, bag and tag. Kate, sketches. McGee, measurements."

The three Special Agents, clipboards and PDA's in hand, moved off to their respective tasks. Beckoning Jimmy over to him, Ducky bent down and began his examination of the body. Jimmy moved over to Ducky without a word, took out his clipboard and pen and waited silently for Ducky to speak.

"Petty Officer Daniel Souza. Signs of asphyxia, hemorrhaging in the eyes, generalized cyanosis, pronounced cyanosis around the mouth and nose, visible bruising across esophagus suggests strangulation…"

Jimmy turned sharply as Tony let out a startled yelp. A wide-eyed woman with shoulder length black hair lunged past him and took off running. Tony took off after her, catching up with her quickly and spinning her around.

"What are you doing in my crime scene?"

The black-haired woman said nothing, staring up at Tony with huge eyes. Her hands shifted twitchily as she watched Tony. Jimmy stared. Did she just...? Jimmy got up, picking up his bags, and walked over to where Tony was holding the woman's arm, ignoring Ducky completely as he was told to come back and finish with the body. The woman's hands shifted again and Ducky's eyes widened in comprehension. She used sign language. Jimmy recognized it; he must use sign language too.

With that realization, the last piece of the puzzle dropped into place. Ducky now understood everything that had happened over the past couple of days. The need to be able to see the person he was talking to, his reluctance to answer the phone, his lack of confidence, his need to always double check. Jimmy's words from a few days back came to Ducky, 'Sorry Doctor Mallard, the accent kinda threw me, that's all.' Jimmy Palmer was at least partially deaf. 'But, so help me, sometimes I just want to slap him.' Ducky's own words from a few days ago floated through his head, and he winced. No wonder the poor boy had been so quiet these past few days. Imagine hearing those words from someone you considered a mentor.

As Jimmy walked over, he saw the black-haired woman narrow steel-grey eyes at Tony, then slowly raise her hands and make a questioning gesture with them. Tony looked at her in confusion, and then understanding dawned as the proverbial light bulb went on above his head.

"Sign language? Great, just great. Our one witness and she can't tell me what she saw. She can't even hear what I'm saying."

"What was that, Dinozzo?" Gibbs asked as he walked over with McGee.

"Possible witness, Boss. Only problem, she's deaf and she can't speak."

The black-haired woman's eyes flashed with anger. Her hands moved rapidly, almost too fast for Jimmy to understand.

'I can hear you perfectly. So go boil your head, you arrogant bastard. I'm mute, not deaf.'

Jimmy snickered helplessly. He put a hand over his mouth to hide his laughter but it was too late. Everyone, including the black-haired woman and Tony turned to look at him. Reflected in Tony's eyes was a mixture of confusion and anger. The black-haired woman's eyes, however, were narrowed in speculation. Her hands moved again, slower this time.

'You understand sign language?'

Jimmy nodded, fighting the urge to grin at the look of pure bewilderment on Tony and McGee's faces. He put down his bag and brought his own hands up, signing as he spoke.

"So, you aren't deaf? You're mute?"

The woman nodded, shooting a glare at Tony. Tony's jaw dropped. He stared at Jimmy in shock. Gibbs raised an eyebrow at Tony, then turned and spoke to Jimmy.

"Palmer, you know sign language?"

"Yes, sir."

"Do you think you could interpret for the young lady?"

"Uh, yes, sir."

"Good," Gibbs finished, before turning to the black-haired woman, "Ma'am, would you mind coming with us down to NCIS so we can ask you a few questions about what you saw?"

The woman nodded at Gibbs, then turned and signed something to Jimmy, who smiled and signed along as he spoke.

"Nice to meet you, I'm Jimmy Palmer."

Turning to the others, Jimmy said, "She says her name is Leah Hillborn, and can you not call her Ma'am, it makes her feel old."