Severus was already taking down Crouch Sr.'s confession by the time Hermione returned to the viewing terrace. The stiff, stoic former head Auror was in tears now that he was freed, and he was all too willing to tell his story to whoever asked. Apparently the man had not only broken his son out of prison, but subsequently kept him obedient under imperius for ten whole years until his son turned the tables and forced him to participate in this scheme to restore Voldemort's body. The gathered group of onlookers were in shock.
Hermione herself was quite taken aback. So this was the secret that Winky had worked so hard to keep! She hadn't pushed the elf to tell her about Crouch out of respect for Winky's loyalty, but her long-suffering friend would surely be distraught now to hear the news. Either of Barty Sr.'s two crimes would earn him at least five years in Azkaban under magical law, and he was not a young man.
"Ladies, gentlemen, excuse me," someone was pushing through the crowds to reach the source of the commotion. A moment later, Minister Fudge's shiny bowler hat popped into view.
"Ladies! Gentlemen! Please," he held up his hands placatingly, "A number of events happened just now, but once you hear the whole story you'll see that there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of this! Let's start from the beginning. Just after the Tournament, someone claiming to be Crouch Jr. ambushed our Champions. But Mr. Potter and Mr. Krum fought valiantly, forcing the rascal to flee with his tail between his legs! Mr. Krum sustained some non-serious injuries and is being treated as we speak, and Mr. Potter is being looked after by our good Headmaster Dumbledore. Let's have a round of applause for our valiant Champions, who have clearly shown their bravery and skills tonight!"
The students among the gathered crowd clapped automatically while Fudge smiled a nervous, ashen-faced smile. Nevertheless, his goal was accomplished. The Minister now had control of the situation.
"Now, and unfortunately this must be said even though I really hate to hurt poor Barty further," said Fudge gently but firmly, "the truth is that Bartemius Junior is dead - No, Barty, you must accept this. I understand that you feel guilty about your son. No father should have to convict his own son, and it's all the sadder that he died in prison. I'm sure that when the children came back with tales of their duel you wanted to believe with all your heart that your son really did escape. You wished that your wife did somehow manage to smuggle him out of Azkaban. You wished that the real reason why you've seen no hide or hair of him all these years is not because he's dead," the Minister shuddered delicately, "but because he's somewhere out there hiding with a deceased Dark Lord who must be equally alive! Thus, your mind made up this story that you can live with more easily - "
Ah. So Fudge had no intention of calling a trial for Crouch. He meant to bury him.
"No, no, my son's alive and it's all my fault," sobbed Crouch. "My son, he spoke to me wearing my own face every night, telling me how he'll make me serve his Dark Lord with him, telling me that You-Know-Who is still alive, and now I'll finally have a chance to support his choices…"
Conveniently for Fudge, by now Crouch was barely coherent, and many of the onlookers were shaking their heads in pity. Hermione looked to the outside of the circle where Blaise, Daphne, and Theo stood. Her three friends seemed to be debating whether it was smart to interrupt the Minister of Magic and correct him.
Someone else had no such hesitance. "I saw Barty Junior with my own eyes before he fled," interjected Alastor Moody.
"Are you sure, Mad-Eye? Did he look exactly like Barty's son at his trial?" frowned Fudge, hiding his annoyance with the grace of a consummate politician.
"Yes, I'm sure!" snapped Moody, "I tutored Crouch Jr. Known him for many years. The attacker tonight looked exactly like Crouch Jr. aged ten years."
"Exactly! Aged ten years! You've seen a man in the dark, made an assumption, and wrote off the difference as passage of time!"
"I was a bloody Auror for ten years, Fudge! I know what I saw. Barty Junior is alive and his scheme is real!"
The minister interrupted him smoothly. "Let's not torture poor Barty by speaking any more of these conjectures. Can't you see the man's already been through the wringer this year mentally - and Barty, this by no means makes you a weak wizard. Maybe you should take some time to rest - and recover... How about a nice seaside retirement cottage, eh? Merlin knows you deserve the break after all these years of hard work! Off you go now, everyone, let's give the man some space…"
With that, Crouch was shuffled away, and the compassionate crowd dispersed murmuring about how cruel it was that an imposter would claim to be a man's dead son while torturing the father. Since Harry had been pulled away by Dumbledore as soon as they got out of the maze, the rest of the Nocturne Group reconvenened for their sedated walk back to the castle.
"Is it really possible that Crouch made all of that up out of grief?" wondered Anthony, "I guess being kept under the imperius curse for almost a whole school year would've messed with his head."
"Except Crouch Jr. is alive, and there's no way he could've gotten out of Azkaban if Crouch Sr. hadn't been telling the truth," insisted Blaise, "Moody recognized Barty Junior. Mme. Slytherin recognized Barty Junior. Even I recognized Barty Junior. We can't all be wrong."
"Then let's go tell the Minister!" exclaimed Terry. "What are we waiting for? If we're fast enough we can still catch him before he leaves!"
Daphne shook her head. "We can't provide a better testimony than Moody. He won't believe a bunch of kids who only know Crouch from a news clipping. Although, it's interesting that he's so quick to dismiss an ex-Auror's ability to recognise a suspect. Isn't that something they teach in Auror training?"
"Maybe he's trying to downplay the incident in front of the foreigners," suggested Blaise, "Crouch is a British Ministry official. If this blows up here in front of all his distinguished guests, it would be like airing dirty laundry in front of the whole world."
"That makes sense," nodded Terry, "sounds like a typical political thing to do."
"Could be," nodded Hermione halfheartedly. The unfortunate truth was that the Minister's maneuver today was not so much to cloud foreign eyes than it was aimed at his own constituents. After all, if no one knew that Voldemort was alive, no one would demand action from a strong and decisive Ministry.
She certainly couldn't fault Fudge for wishing, but it would be no use to pretend. The quiet before the storm was nearly over.
She'd tried her best to let Barty Jr. think that Voldemort's whereabouts were still safe, but Voldemort would not be satisfied by his reassurances. If they were lucky, this scare might drive Voldemort back into passivity to bide his time. More likely, however, it would prompt the incumbent Dark Lord to accelerate his plans. Hermione sincerely doubted that withholding Harry's blood could prevent Voldemort's return, now that he seemed intent on doing so and had access to a loyal Death Eater. If anything, he could simply possess Barty Jr. If the wizard she'd met today was really as fanatical as he seemed, he might even do what Quirrell had been unwilling to do and let Voldemort displace him in his body entirely.
No, the quiet before the storm was over. She was confident that in the coming year, she and those who threw in their lot with her would be thoroughly and harshly tested.
She supposed this had always been the frightening part of entering the fray. Once entangled, there would be no turning back. Her entire being would be committed to her choice - and perhaps it already was, for better or for worse.
She looked forward to the challenge.
'You have failed me, Barty," said the Dark Lord.
Crimson eyes locked on him from an inhuman body. Bartemius shivered.
To say it aloud was a redundancy. The Dark Lord had already seen it all in his mind, and Bartemius had shown him openly. Nevertheless, it was still his duty to make this report. "I was unable to obtain Potter's blood," he said, stuttering over the words, "Potter used Dark Arts to barricade himself, and neither him nor I knew how to take it down. I was defeated by the enemy before I could think of an alternative."
"I see. You were defeated in a duel by a witch in a silver mask."
"Er, yes, my Lord. There may be more opportunities to take Potter's blood in the future, my Lord. I can break into his godfather's house, cut him while he sleeps -"
"It will not work!" hissed the Dark Lord furiously, and Bartemius lost the burst of boldness that had compelled him to speak. "How many times must I explain it to you, Bartemius? The ritual requires the blood of my enemy, forcibly taken. When the blood is collected, Potter's will must be uncompromised, and there must be no confusion in his mind that his blood is being taken for the purpose of resurrecting me, his foe. It cannot be done in his sleep. It cannot be done through trickery. Otherwise the ritual's outcome will be unpredictable! Do you understand?"
"Yes, my Lord," mumbled Bartemius, chastised.
"You've had a year, Barty. I do not have time to wait for you to attempt to break into Sirius Black's ancestral home. Now that you've given away my location -"
"I succeeded in repelling her from my mind, my Lord!"
"Do not interrupt me. You think you did. Perhaps you are right, but your talents in the mind arts are not exceptional. I do not trust you to detect the advances of a master."
Red eyes gleamed malevolently. Bartemius swallowed, bowing his head all the way to the faded marble floor where he was kneeling. This was all his fault. Not only did he fail his Lord, he'd also inadvertently compromised their safety. "I will pack your things, my Lord. Where shall we relocate - "
"There will be no need for that, Barty," said the Dark Lord.
Bartemius looked up. "You have a plan, my Lord?"
"As always," confided the Dark Lord silkily, and Bartemius was awash with relief. "You have one more chance to make up for your failure, Barty. It seems that I must do without Potter's blood for my resurrection. I must settle for the other ritual instead. Restore me to life, Barty, and you will forever be highest in my esteem."
Bartemius gazed at his Lord. To be held highest in the Dark Lord's esteem, before even his most favoured lieutenants! It was a great honour. An honour he'd scarcely dared to wish for.
An honour worth dying for.
"I accept, my Lord," whispered Bartemius. His own wand had been captured, so he must presume to borrow his Lord's. Taking the bone-white yew wand from the Dark Lord's offering fingers, he cradled it carefully against his heart. His cheeks were wet with tears of joy.
In the end, all it would take was one loyal Death Eater to restore the Dark Lord. It was an easy ritual, one that even Bartemius couldn't screw up. All he had to do was say the words, and mean it with all his heart.
"I give my life for yours, my Lord."
Green light flashed across the decrepit ballroom of the once-ostentatious manor. The misshapen homunculus dissolved into black smoke. Bartemius died, but his body did not fall. Slowly, its face shifted and its fingers lengthened. Its eyes turned crimson. Its lipless mouth split into a cruel, victorious grin.
Lord Voldemort had returned.
In the Headmaster's Office, Alastor Moody and Albus Dumbledore emerged from a long Pensieve memory of the encounter in the heart of the Third Task arena.
As soon as he landed on solid ground, Alastor turned. "Alright. I've delivered the message. What are your thoughts?"
Albus straightened his beard. 'What are my thoughts, he asks. Oh, where to start?'
"Crouch Jr.'s existence and what he said of Voldemort's plans. Those details are self-explanatory."
"What I know is what you know," Alastor agreed.
"The woman in the silver mask. She said her name is Slytherin."
"Un-huh," said the ex-Auror, "and she said you know her."
Albus grimaced. To say that Albus knew the woman was a gross overstatement when all he knew of her was a letter of her name.
But now he knew of her intentions as well. "I've had correspondence with her, yes. She has previously expressed interest in an alliance of sorts, though very obliquely. I am unable to see what form it would take."
Alastor gave him a pointed look. "So…? Out with it. What's your response? What are you going to do about it?"
"I think," said Albus, "it's time for the Order of the Phoenix to be reborn."
"Severus!" cried the Potion Master when Severus limped out of the floo and into the headmaster's office, "Are you well?"
"What do you think?" Severus bit out, looking neither at the portrait in green nor at Dumbledore's cloyingly worried face. The caring and sympathetic facade had long lost its appeal to Severus, ruined by the knowledge that he would still be expected to go buy secrets with his life on a routine basis. Bastards, the lot of them.
He might as well skip the small talks and go straight to what they actually wanted to know. "The Dark Lord's back. Only seven of us were there to witness his resurrection. He cursed each of us thirteen times, one for every year we failed to search for him. Then he dismissed us. That's all."
"Who were the other six, Severus?" asked Dumbledore, holding out a hand to steady him. While also happening to cut off his path back to the floo. How convenient.
"Amycus and Alecto Carrow, Travers, Crabbe," Severus listed tonelessly, "Malfoy, Nott. I'm going to bed. Goodnight." Every bone in his body ached as he stomped down each step of the spiralling, bloody unending stairs of the headmaster's tower. It would've been faster to floo to his office, but he was not about to beg Dumbledore to move. The Headmaster could wait until tomorrow before pressing him dry for the rest of his information.
Damn it, he just needed to be alone for an hour or two to recover, preferably with a cup of warm milk. Or something sweet. It was too bad that the kitchen was all the way on the other side of the basement. Not worth the walk.
"Severus, do you have everything you need?"
Severus looked up and sighed. Of course. By being stubborn with the Headmaster, he was now forced to either go through the Potion Master's passage or drag himself through three more corridors. "Mortal dread," he told the portrait of Salazar Slytherin. At least this time he didn't have to say please.
Unfortunately, like Dumbledore, Slytherin also seemed intent on prolonging the conversation. "Because if there's anything you're short right now - healing draughts, murtlap, tea, anything that you don't want to prepare for yourself? Let me know, please. I can help."
Leaning against the wall across from the portrait for some support, Severus sneered. "You're a painting, Slytherin. You can't do jack shit but give orders. And don't you try to be generous on your protegee's behalf. If your heart's in the right place, you won't tell her a thing about what happened tonight."
The last bloody thing he needed was for Slytherin to convince Hermione that she needed to come play his nursemaid. He would sooner burn the portrait than allow it.
Salazar Slytherin closed his mouth, coughed delicately, and then opened it again. "I am sorry, Severus. It would seem that all I have for you are empty platitudes. Regardless, I wish for you to be well."
Severus snorted. "I'm not even the worst off. Poor Nott, thirteen cruciatus curses for his old pampered bones." He glanced sideways at the portrait. He supposed he ought to share one more piece of information tonight.
Yes, better that Slytherin knew sooner than later. "Nott started muttering apologies to Persephone the goddess toward the end, something about how the Elysian Fields were not for him despite her benevolent graces. Would you know anything about that? I hope he hasn't been driven mad."
Slytherin shook his head. "No, it's not an unexpected response from Tristan Nott considering the theme of our correspondences. He references Greek mythology quite frequently," Painted silver eyes flashed with some veiled emotion. "It's a rejection."
"Ah." said Severus. "Well, break the news to your protegee gently, won't you? She should be told before she gets her hopes up."
He didn't envy Hermione Granger. After all the reforms over the past years and the hard-won reconciliation between Gryffindor and Slytherin, Severus had thought that no one would have to go through this again.
"If his father sides with Voldemort, I will reluctantly cut my losses and cut ties," Hermione had pronounced coolly. This Severus knew to be a lie. But the extent or nature of her bond with the Nott heir was not something that Severus could glimpse. The freshly-erected walls that kept Mme. Slytherin safe also made it increasingly impossible for him to see into the girl's heart, and really it was better for him not to ask.
"Of course. She will know everything," promised the portrait. "Go get some sleep, Severus. My protegee, as you call her… she is safe and resting well. You take care of yourself."
The gilded frame slid aside, and Severus was finally allowed to stumble into the darkness.
V has returned. Thought you ought to know.
My back hurts dreadfully. Don't thank me.
I assume this means war?
You will never read this letter, because I will never send it. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to write to you one last time.
I want to see your vision for our world become reality. I wish it with all my heart. But I cannot join you.
I suppose it all comes down to fear as you say. I have known the Dark Lord, your kin, since school. I have seen how he has changed over the years, his temper growing more mercurial by the day alongside his power. But there is one fact that has always been consistent about him:
He will always, always have his revenge. Even if you cover all your bases, even if you think yourself safe, even if you have the upper hand by any sane person's reckoning, the fatal blow will always fall. He has done this time and time again. He has done this all his life.
I suppose this means we must be enemies.
'To the Venerable Mme. Slytherin,
My name is Theodore Nott, son of Tristan Nott.
You sent everyone a letter some months ago, and I received it.
I wished to reply sooner, but I could not make up my mind until now. I think you already understand my dilemma very well. But now I think I've put off the decision for long enough.
A friend once asked me to promise to do everything within my ability to stay true to what I believe, and what I believe is that Lord Voldemort should not be in power. Except, I thought I had no choice, because who am I to gainsay my father?
But tonight I realized that I do have a choice. An impossible one with painful consequences on either side, but a choice nonetheless.
I would like to take you up on that offer of sanctuary for this summer, Mme. Slytherin. I am putting my faith in you and your plans for the way forward. Please let me assist you where you feel I can. In the meantime, I will work on persuading my father to leave Voldemort.
If there isn't a way then I'll make one. Right?
Maybe this is all wishful thinking on my part, but I'm willing to err on the off chance that I am right.
Please contact me when possible. I will eagerly await your sign.
AN: so this is it! End of year 4.
Many thanks again for all the great work that Mastermind17 did in beta-reading this story. They were a great help in condensing sentences and fine-tuning some of my word choices. (If there are any remaining grammar errors in the story, that's because I posted those chapters before beta-reading and was too lazy to go back and change them. So I take full credit for the mistakes :P)
Also shoutouts to everyone who's left comments for me here and on AO3. Your comments help me figure out how many chekhov's guns to bury.
I'll take another couple months to get started on year 5. As with the year 4 arc, I'll start posting once I have draft chapters built up for about a third of the year. TTYL!
Working title for yr 5: A waltz of masks
Aug 16, 2020 - As an aside: people have been extolling the many virtues of D&D, and I'm really curious what it's like. If there are any senpai out there willing to take a complete noob under their wings and let me join their game as a player, please PM me!