It Takes a Pragmatist
Her name is Alicia Lestrange, but she calls herself Alicia Smart.
It isn't that she's ashamed of being born in Azkaban, or being raised by baby farmers in Knockturn Alley. She isn't proud of being the forgotten child of the infamous murderer Bellatrix Lestrange, nor of her paternity, which might be her equally infamous husband but will forever be unknown, but she isn't ashamed either. Why should she be? She didn't do anything wrong.
She is mildly concerned that Bellatrix might turn her attention on her, but somehow she doubts it. From all accounts, the Lestranges care for sons, not daughters. And her foster mother believes Bellatrix, already mad and more so from years in Azkaban, might not even remember birthing her at all. Narcissa Malfoy knows, of course - she pays her foster parents their stipend - but Alicia has never seen any indication that her existence has been acknowledged in the family.
That's just fine by her. They're a bit too deep in bed with that freak Voldemort for her liking.
Oh, it isn't that she has much time for the legend of Harry Potter. She doesn't have much time for the legend of the Dark Lord either. She was raised poor, and her concerns have always been prosaic. Clothes needed mending. There was always work to do in her parents' shabby little shop. They can't afford house-elves and her parents are not powerful magicians. That's why they baby farm in the first place. They scratch out a living any way they can, with the shop and raising unwanted or inconvenient children for pay. They are kind people, and Pureblood too, but impoverished in funds and impoverished in skill, not much better than squibs.
Narcissa sent her to school, though - it's more than any of her foster siblings have had. It was she who instructed her to take a false name, on their one and only meeting at the beginning of the year, just after her acceptance letter came by owl. It wasn't an affectionate meeting, but a practical one. Alicia doesn't mind. In her world, pragmatic care is love. Or close enough.
She chose Smart because the Smarts are known as Purebloods (if any family is genuinely Pureblood anymore - Alicia doubts it). But they are not prominent. It is a sprawling, diverse bloodline with many branches, including her impoverished foster parents. The Smarts are the poor cousins of wizarding society, the ones who run the shops and tailor the robes and guard Gringotts and sell magical herbs. It is a safely anonymous name, unlikely to associate her with anyone of importance, on either side of the war. Again, Narcissa's idea - and as it turned out, a good one.
Alicia is a pragmatist, and personally, she considers Pansy's suggestion of giving up Harry Potter to the Dark Lord a good one. She might only be a first year, but as far as she's concerned, they're both just glorified politicians, and just as irrelevant. If Potter's so damn wonderful, he'll beat the Dark Lord again, so what's the harm? The snake-eyed creep might even disappear for good this time.
Her fellow students, the older ones, are more partisan - some for their families or their Headmaster, who bear the Dark Mark, and some for Harry, out of lingering loyalty to their deceased headmaster. Contrary to popular belief, Slytherin isn't all about blood purity and hating Muggles, although that faction does exist (and there are plenty of silent Death Eater sympathisers in the other Houses, ones who won't get their hands dirty but would love to see Muggles just disappear, a fact which no one seems to even notice). Slytherin is about intelligence, about pragmatism, and about loyalty that is intelligently chosen. Alicia likes that. She gets it.
But Alicia never knew Dumbledore and she doesn't know anyone with the Mark, and she wouldn't care if she did. People in power never look out for people like her, or if they do, it is only with scraps, such as she receives from Narcissa. She isn't bitter, towards Narcissa or life in general, but she is a realist. The world owes her nothing and gives her precious little, so it her job to provide for herself.
At the end of the day, this is a grubby little war, and it isn't her war, and her only loyalty is to her own survival.
Admittedly, she did know Professor Snape, and he did look out for her a little, at Narcissa's request. He was kind to her, in a practical, terse, and completely unsentimental way. But he was rarely there, and now he is gone, and she and her oh-so-fucking-special House are confined to the dungeons, on that old bat McGonagall's orders.
She has her doubts about how much power Professor Snape ever really had. Oh, he was the Headmaster, of course, and he had a good little act going there about how big and bad and tough he was. But Alicia knows a professional facade when she sees one. It's the same kind of facade that her mother uses when vile rich women come into the shop and she acts like she lives to serve their petty whims, so vital to their own survival.
Not that she thinks Snape is a great big bunny underneath it all or anything. The jaded thing? That part's real, she'd bet her meagre galleons on it. But she dismissed the facade on first meeting, and saw the facts instead. She saw the abuses of the Carrows and the way Snape watched them with a look of disdain, and the way he was present less and less. She thinks that very little of what's gone on this year is his doing or his will.
Alicia knows what it is to be placed in a situation of false leadership, one you didn't ask for and have no ability to live up to. She's in one now.
"I'm scared," Lydia Malfoy says piteously, curling up against her for warmth. Unknown to Lydia, she is a distant cousin, through Narcissa's husband. But Lydia isn't curling up against her (and a Second Year, a year older than her, honestly!) because they're family. She's doing it the same way all of them are - because they're scared and Alicia is the only one who in any way has her shit together.
I didn't come down here for this, she thinks. She doesn't want to be their leader or their mother or whatever the fuck they want from her. She just wants to keep her head down and get out of here with it still attached to her body.
Reluctantly, awkwardly, she pats the girl's shoulder, as she has done for so many over the last few hours. She has no idea what to say, and her brood of terrified peers is growing. There are windows in the dungeons, not much more than slits up just below the ceiling, but they allow far more information than any of them want. The ones who didn't know the classic green flash that accompanies the deadly Avada Kedavra curse, soon found out from the older students. That was when her brood suddenly expanded to include Second and Third Years, and when she started to get boys as well as girls.
She had them singing for a while. Quietly, so as not to attract attention from outside. That helped for the better part of an hour. But then they got onto Double Trouble, and when they got to the line about something wicked this way comes, a dozen of them burst into tears, not all of them girls. There was no more singing after that.
Since then, she had been fundamentally unable to help them. They didn't seem to notice, but she felt helpless, and helpless was the one thing Alicia could never stand to be.
Things had gone quiet since Voldemort's ceasefire, communicated terrifyingly into their heads. The command to use the time to bury their dead had cast a pall over the dungeon, colder than any natural coolness of being half-underground. Since then, her brood have been quiet, as well. Scattered sobs and hitching breaths can be heard, but little discussion. They have no clue who the dead are or if any of them are their friends or their kin. The ones who have their whole families in the dungeon are the lucky ones; plenty of them have siblings and extended family in other Houses. Children who barely know each other, or even dislike one another, have their arms wrapped around each other for comfort and warmth.
War is a great big fucking peacemaker for the House of Slytherin. Who knew?
Finally, the moment comes that she has been dreading. One of them voices what they've all been thinking.
"Alicia?" Lydia says.
"I don't want to die."
A hush falls over the dungeon and she hates it, hates the way they're all looking at her to say the right thing. What the hell can she say? They're locked in a box, for Merlin's sake, their chances of getting out of this alive if Voldemort turns his attention on them are slim to none.
A silky voice murmurs into her ear, "Tell her she's not going to die." It isn't true, she thinks, but the voice goes on, "It doesn't matter. It's spin. You understand that, don't you? They need spin right now."
They're still waiting, so she dismisses all questions about who is speaking to her and how and why and how they can read her thoughts. "You're not going to die, Lydia," she says evenly. "Don't be silly. We're locked far away from the battle. Our parents will come and get us when it's all over. We're probably the safest people in Hogwarts right now."
The tension, like a held breath, releases so abruptly that she feels the air pressure change around her. They begin murmuring in agreement, their spirits lifted. Lydia sniffles and nods.
When she judges that no one is watching her, she turns her head casually towards the voice. Stifles a gasp.
There, beside her head, is a portrait. She's sure it wasn't there before. There aren't any others down here. Why would there be? You don't adorn a dungeon.
The portrait is small - not much bigger than a cameo. Easy to overlook in the dim light. It has a tarnished silver frame adorned with lilies.
The portrait is of Professor Snape.
So that explains the mind-reading thing. He is a skilled Legilimens, she remembers. As for the why, well, to help her watch over Slytherin. He was Housemaster for many years before Slughorn. That hangs together.
That just leaves the how. She's absolutely certain that for people to talk through portraits they have to be -
"Dead," the Professor murmurs. "Quite so, Miss Lestrange." Smart, she corrects him mentally, and he nods in acknowledgement. "Miss Smart. Of course. As an aside, I highly recommend that you make the alias a permanent one going forward. When this is over, being the daughter of Bellatrix Lestrange is even less likely to be in your favour than it was a year ago."
So, you're really dead, then? she thinks. She wonders if she should say that she's sorry.
"Not at all. It was long overdue, I should think. But I did want to make sure that my House is in good hands. And I can see that they are."
I don't know what to do, she protests.
"Keep doing what you're doing," he says. "They need you to be practical - it's why they're drawn to you. But that doesn't mean you should say everything you think. They need to believe it's going to be all right, and more importantly, they need to think you believe it."
How will we get out of here?
"I'm not a Seer, Miss Smart. But I wouldn't be surprised if Professor McGonagall arranges for you to be taken to Hogsmeade during the ceasefire. If she does, I have one favour to ask of you."
Anything, she wants to tell him, but doesn't. You don't give an open invitation like that during a war.
He surprises her with a wry sound that might be mirth. "Always the pragmatist. The favour is this: If you see Draco Malfoy, tell him he must rejoin his mother at all costs. Even if it means joining the Dark Lord."
Why? she thinks.
"Because she has done something to help end this, and when it is found out, all the Malfoys will be in grave danger. She will need to run, but she won't run without him."
She inclines her head, just a fraction. You care for the Malfoys.
"Care may not be precisely the word, but close enough. I made an Unbreakable Vow to his mother to protect him once."
The consequence of breaking the Vow is death, isn't it? Forgive me, Professor, but you're already-
"That's a little tactless, don't you think?"
Sorry. She thinks hastily, I'll give him the message. I'll find a way.
"Not very pragmatic of you," he murmurs in mock reproof.
She wonders if he thinks her incapable of doing anything that doesn't serve herself. She protests, I might be loyal to my own survival, but that includes people who've helped me survive. She isn't sure whether she means Narcissa-her-benefactor, Narcissa-the-war-hero (in whatever form that takes, and she's just dying to know), Professor Snape, or all of the above.
He bows his head, just a fraction. "I meant no offence, Miss Smart. Thank you."
Just then, there are sounds at the door. Keys and fumbling and that bad-tempered old git Filch. Everyone gets to their feet.
"This is it," Snape murmurs into her ear. "See them out, then find Draco. You'll find another way out."
How can you be sure? she wonders. She doesn't believe he would lie to her. Not one pragmatist to another.
"The castle itself will help you. Or, as a wise man put it to me very recently, help will come at Hogwarts for all who deserve it." That tone of mirth was back in his voice, like there was some in-joke going on inside his head.
She asks him to explain, but he just laughs, a deep yet rusty sound that seems like it has barely been used. He abruptly ducks out of his portrait, leaving only an empty background, his laughter still ringing in her ears.
"Alicia?" Lydia says. "Are you coming?"
She turns her head back to face her brood, now all on their feet before her.
She manufactures a broad and reassuring smile. Nods firmly. "Sorry. Just thinking." Gets to her feet.
"About what?" asks a Second Year, a boy she knows by face but not by name.
Spin, she thinks. Her smile broadens. "About getting out of here. And about what comes next." With a nod of her head, she leads them to the door. Filch and McGonagall are waiting.
"What does come next?" someone asks.
She thinks on this. As she thinks, her smile softens. Becomes real.
"Survival," she says simply. But somehow it's enough.
She sees them out, and then she finds Draco, and then she survives.