Fortunately for Ron, his popularity soars after the second task. However, when Ron's story morphs from one that matches Hermione's to one in which he fights 50 armed merpeople, Hermione teases him and he stops. Early in March, Harry receives a short note from Sirius, asking him to bring food to the end of the road in Hogsmeade at two in the afternoon. Harry wants to see Sirius, but he's afraid that Sirius will be caught hanging around Hogsmeade.
As funny as Ron's story is, it's telling that he weaves a story that casts the merpeople as bad guys. This suggests again that Ron buys into the general sense of anxiety that most wizards seem to when it comes to non-human creatures that live independently, like giants and goblins.
On Friday afternoon, Harry, Ron, and Hermione line up for Potions and notice the Slytherins giggling at them. Pansy Parkinson throws her copy of the magazine Witch Weekly at Hermione and while Snape isn't paying attention, she finds an article titled "Harry Potter's Secret Heartache." In it, Rita Skeeter writes that Hermione is playing with Harry and Krum's emotions. She also mentions that Krum has invited Hermione to visit over the summer. Hermione sarcastically waves at the Slytherins. As she turns to her potion, she wonders how Skeeter discovered that Krum invited her to visit, given that Krum extended the invitation after the second task and Skeeter isn't allowed on school grounds.
Hermione's ability to not take Skeeter's article seriously points to Hermione's maturity when it comes to romance, as this implies that were Hermione embarrassed about her involvement with either Krum or Harry, this article would be a bombshell. However, because Hermione knows where she stands and understands that Skeeter is just trying to stir up trouble, she's able to disregard the attempt.
Ron is more concerned with figuring out whether Hermione accepted the invitation than with wondering how Rita Skeeter obtained this information. Noticing this, Snape takes points from Gryffindor, confiscates Witch Weekly, and much to their horror, reads the article out loud. Snape separates the trio and moves Harry right in front of his desk. Harry tries to ignore Snape's attempts to goad him into saying something stupid by insisting that Harry is just a spoiled little boy. He also accuses Harry of stealing from his office, shows Harry a bottle of Veritaserum, a Truth Potion, and threatens to "accidentally" give Harry some.
The fact that Snape's recitation of the Witch Weekly article is so horrifying reminds the reader that tone and source matter: because the trio hates Snape, it's worse to hear this coming from him. When Snape then goes on to accuse Harry and call him names, it again shows how authority figures like Snape have a great deal of responsibility when it comes to their students, as Snape can make Harry feel horrendous with little effort.
Karkaroff lets himself into Snape's classroom and tells Snape that they need to talk. Snape insists they can speak after this lesson is over. Karkaroff hovers until the lesson is over, at which point Harry purposefully spills his armadillo bile so he can listen while he mops it up. Karkaroff shows Snape something on his left arm and Snape snarls for him to put "it" away. When Snape notices Harry, Harry feigns innocence and packs up his things quickly.
Karkaroff and Snape's conversation shows Harry that whatever is on their arms (remember that Snape has clutched his left forearm too) is something that has to do with the wider Wizarding world, which Harry is still learning about. In other words, their arms show Harry he still has much to learn.
The next afternoon, Harry, Ron, and Hermione take food down to Hogsmeade. They choose socks for Dobby and then walk to the edge of town, where they find Sirius waiting for them in his dog form. They follow him up the nearby mountain and into a cave, where they greet Sirius in his human form. Sirius digs into the chicken legs and, noticing Harry's concern, explains that he wants to be nearby since things are getting more worrying. He motions to a stack of Daily Prophets and Harry notices headlines talking about Mr. Crouch's illness, which make it seem like he's dying, and Bertha Jorkins's continued disappearance.
Sirius's desire to be close to Harry to protect and support him shows that Sirius is taking his role as Harry's godfather seriously and knows that he has a great deal of power to guide Harry through the Tournament and the difficulties of adolescence. By reading the paper, Sirius is able to model for the trio how to effectively gather information and interpret it to pick out things that might be true or important.
Hermione suggests that Mr. Crouch is paying for firing Winky and though Ron rolls his eyes, Sirius is very interested to hear about Winky's activities during the World Cup that led to her being fired. They wonder if any of the Malfoys stole Harry's wand in the top box and they discuss Bagman. The news that Bagman keeps trying to help Harry concerns Sirius. As Hermione angrily says that Winky was fired because she tried to save herself and Ron tells her to stop, Sirius says that Hermione has a point--it's important to note that Mr. Crouch treats people who are powerless poorly.
When Sirius cautions Ron to take it seriously that Mr. Crouch is cruel to his inferiors, it shows Ron that a person is judged by all their actions--and that no action is neutral, even if what Mr. Crouch did seems "normal" by most Wizarding standards. This also gives Hermione a boost in terms of supporting S.P.E.W., as it suggests to her that Sirius believes that freeing house-elves is a good and important endeavor.
Sirius says that Mr. Crouch's absences aren't normal and, when Harry asks, says that he knows Mr. Crouch because he's the one who sent him to Azkaban without a trial. He says that Crouch was poised to be Minister of Magic and was power-hungry, but not Dark. He trails off and says that the trio wouldn't understand and when Ron asks him to explain, Sirius agrees. He sets the stage: Voldemort is powerful, and nobody can tell who's acting of their own accord and who isn't. People are dying. Sirius says that in this climate, Crouch rose quickly and authorized the Unforgivable Curses against suspected Dark wizards. What stopped his rise to the top was when Crouch's son, Barty, was caught with a group of Death Eaters.
When Ron asks Sirius to explain what he means and not treat the trio like children, it shows that all three of them are craving interactions with adults in which they're also treated like adults. This is one of the strongest markers that Harry, Ron, and Hermione are coming of age, as it shows that they want to grow up and are trying to do so. It's also important that Sirius is able to see that Mr. Crouch is on the side of good, but still acted like a bad person in major ways. This again shows that people aren't just good or evil.
Sirius doesn't know if Barty Crouch was a Death Eater and when Hermione asks if Mr. Crouch let his son off, Sirius laughs. He says that Mr. Crouch eliminates people who threaten his reputation. Barty Crouch got a trial but went to Azkaban. He died after a year. Mr. Crouch's wife died soon after and all of this damaged Mr. Crouch's reputation. Harry notes that Moody thinks that Mr. Crouch is obsessed with catching Dark wizards. Ron insists that this is why Mr. Crouch snuck into Snape's office, but Sirius says this doesn't make sense--Crouch has a ready-made cover to spy on Snape if he comes to the Tournament.
When Sirius says that it was a mistake for Mr. Crouch to prioritize his reputation over anything else, it suggests that there is more to life than power and prestige, and that being kind can get a person further than being cruel in the name of good. Notably, sending his son to Azkaban represents a major lack of empathy or love on Mr. Crouch's part, suggesting that he never learned this aspect of adulthood and maturity.
Hermione and Ron argue about whether or not they can trust Snape. Sirius says that he's unsure why Dumbledore trusts Snape, as all of Snape's friends at school became Death Eaters. Harry tells Sirius about Snape's conversation with Karkaroff yesterday, which Sirius can't make sense of. After a moment of thoughtful silence, Sirius asks if Ron will write to Percy and see what Mr. Crouch is up to, especially in regards to Bertha Jorkins. Sirius says that people say that Bertha was forgetful, but he knew her. She was dim, but remembered gossip perfectly.
Sirius's assessment of Bertha Jorkins opens up the possibility that there's more to her and to her disappearance than anyone else believes possible. Further, note that Sirius believes that Bertha's memory was just fine, while Bagman seems convinced that Bertha could forget anything. This suggests the possibility that something happened to Bertha between the present and when Sirius knew her.
Sirius tells Harry, Ron, and Hermione to head back to school and in parting, tells them to be safe. He turns into his dog form and walks them back to the edge of town. As the trio re-enters the Hogwarts grounds, they wonder if Percy knows what Sirius knows about Mr. Crouch.
Wondering if Percy knows this information about Mr. Crouch shows that Ron, Harry, and Hermione recognize that Percy has the opportunity to make choices, just like Mr. Crouch, and can prioritize either his family or his work.