A 13-year-old Harry Potter stayed behind as the rest of his classmates filtered out of the dungeon. He took his time to clean up his desk and pretended to be busy with organizing something inside his backpack.
When he noticed that Hermione was slowing down, indicating that she would wait for him, he gestured that she should go ahead, that he'd be fine. He could see that she wasn't entirely convinced but did what he asked anyway. He wasn't sure how this conversation would go, and would decide whether to share it with her later.
It took a few minutes, but finally, the only other occupant of the room was the professor. The noise from the corridor had abated, and it was time. He could feel his heart racing and took a deep breath.
"Mr Potter?" asked Severus Snape, an eyebrow raised.
"I had personal question I was hoping to ask you, sir."
The door to the classroom gracefully closed without, as far as Harry could tell, Snape having done anything. "What is it?" he enquired, his face blank.
"I don't know what the best way to phrase this is," Harry fumbled, but noticing the flicker of irritation on the professor's face, ploughed on. "I wanted to ask you why it is that you've been so hard on me for the past 2 years!"
Snape did not reply immediately, and Harry interpreted it as a request to elaborate.
"You're always asking me questions in class that most of the others would not know the answers to. I exhaust myself studying before classes to try to avoid making a fool of myself, and most of the time, it still isn't enough! I'm not even sure if Hermione knows some of the answers to what you ask me. And you specifically do this only with me. I like potions! I have fun when I'm practicing on my own! But when I'm in this class, it is the opposite! I don't get it. Did I do something wrong? I'm constantly worried that -"
"Stop." Snape interrupted the stream of consciousness coming from the child.
Harry complied immediately, suddenly terrified that he had gone too far.
"I get the idea. And there is nothing that makes you special, and I think it is time for us to just accept that and move on." He sighed. "I'm aware that you know of your mother's friendship with me."
Harry stared. He wasn't sure what he expected from this confrontation, but definitely not whatever this was. His mother?
"She was also one of the very few … competent people I had the pleasure of working with," Snape continued with a faraway look in his eyes. "And when you first walked into my classroom, I thought I saw the glimmers of her instincts. I had hoped that your ability could be developed beyond the average, but if you've already reached your limits, I see it was a futile attempt."
It felt like a punch in the gut. It wasn't the first time Harry had felt someone's disappointment, but it was the first time even considering the idea that he might be disappointment to his parents. He was about to retort angrily, but Snape carried on.
"It was largely due to the – respect – I had for Lily that I continued this exercise beyond what I usually do." His voice got quieter now. "And I know every child is different, and it is unfair to expect them to be just like their parents. But for whatever reason, I still hoped." He paused here to think before declaring, "I will henceforth stop giving you any special attention. You may now slack off in peace. Is that all?"
Harry clenched his fists and did his best to speak calmly. "Is that what you think of me? That all I want to do is to slack off?"
Snape took a long look at him, before seemingly making up his mind. "I am going be frank with you, Mr Potter. Based on what I have seen of your efforts and results over the past 2 years, I am not particularly impressed. I will admit that you have some talent in Charms and Defense, but beyond that, you are a mediocre student. I can even understand that you have had to deal with other – concerns – throughout your childhood, although I do not expect others to be as forgiving.
"The real issue is that I have not observed in you the drive that some of your classmates possess, to push themselves beyond their abilities. Unless you're truly exceptional, that is practically a necessity to make any noticeable difference on our world, and I distinctly remember you expressing ambitions in this regard.
"Like I said, I hoped you had potential, but based on the evidence until now, you will grow up to be above average, but ultimately an ordinary wizard. That is an entirely acceptable way to live, but you need to figure out if you're okay with that, and if not, do something about it."
Harry stood there slack jawed. Truth be told, he wasn't that surprised by the evaluation of his skills but was in no way prepared for this brutal honesty. This depressing awareness was not something that one acknowledged with friends, because a lot of them were in the same bucket. But was he truly okay with it?
Snape allowed him a few moments of silence to introspect, and then decided to remind him that there was hope. "It will not be easy," he started, drawing the boy's attention back to him. "But if this is something that truly matters to you, you can be better. In fact, I could even give you examples of people you know who have worked hard to elevate themselves."
"You mean Hermione," Harry guessed.
"Of course," Snape agreed, "but she isn't the only one. A better example would be Miss Bones, who I estimate has a natural ability similar to your own. She, however, has been focused on her ambition to emulate her Aunt, and worked hard enough that I am forced to admit that her effective skills are a solid step higher than yours."
Harry blinked. His respect for Susan went up a notch. "What about Neville?" he then asked, thinking about the shy boy who was a much closer example of someone who worked harder than him.
Snape thought for a moment, and then started explaining. "The way I am going to attempt to explain this is an extreme simplification, but something I expect will resonate with you. I want to emphasize that these evaluations are subject to change, but for now, I'm going to pretend that you and everyone you know continues on whatever trajectory they are on now and is an adult with a complete magical education.
"As a baseline, we'll start with you, Mr Potter. I'm going to quantify your natural magical ability at level 3. As I mentioned before, Miss Bones started out like you at 3, but I would say she is at level 4 right now. Mr Longbottom on the other hand, seems to have started out at level 2, and is able to operate at 3 through sheer determination."
That … actually made a lot of sense. Harry's respect for Neville jumped up too. He nodded, and so Snape continued.
"Most of your classmates hover between levels 3 and 4. There are some who do not seem to care -" Harry immediately thought of Crabbe and Goyle, "- and are happy to operate at 2, which is the bare minimum Hogwarts allows. I believe the only level 1 student in your year was Miss Perks, and once it became obvious that despite all her hard work, she would never be able to keep up with her peers, she decided to leave Hogwarts and focus on the non-magical world."
"Both Miss Granger and Mr Malfoy have a natural magically ability around level 4, which as I explained is something that Miss Bones had to work hard for. While Mr Malfoy is mostly content, Miss Granger is obviously not, and she has impressively elevated herself to level 5. The same could be said of Miss Patil from Ravenclaw, who has also gone from a 4 to a 5."
"The reason I had high hopes from you, Mr Potter, was that this could be said of both of your parents too. During his initial years, your father was as complacent as Mr Malfoy, but when he eventually got serious about his education, he was able to match Lily."
This was fascinating information for Harry. He'd never thought about it this way. "What level are you at, sir?"
"Well, there is a time to be humble, but this is not it," he said to himself loud enough for Harry to hear, before answering him. "I estimate I would be a level 6 on this scale, and once again, I would like to remind you that we're comparing adult versions of the people you know. I will admit that I started out at 5, but … there were unusual circumstances that provided motivation to push myself further. Some of the other staff members like Minerva and Filius are also at level 6, although I suppose they did take more time to get there. I actually suspect Filius might qualify at level 7, but he enjoys appearing harmless. Professor Dumbledore is definitely at level 7."
Harry stared at the professor. He had never thought about it, but it made a certain amount of sense given that Hogwarts claimed to be one of the premier schools of magic across the world. Nevertheless, it was hard to wrap his mind around the fact that his teachers were that much more capable than him. The difference between his ability and that of Hermione already felt scary to him, and it was only going to increase as they grew older. And then extrapolating this logic to their professors …
"It is hard to meaningfully estimate the ability of people who are significantly more powerful than you," Snape continued explaining as though that wasn't humbling enough, "but this is particularly relevant for you, Mr Potter. Based on accounts from the Headmaster, I am reasonably confident that the Dark Lord would be considered level 8, if not higher. He has demonstrably been the most powerful wizard in the last few centuries, unlike some of the unsubstantiated legends of more powerful witches and wizards that you will undoubtedly find in historical records if you go looking."
"Anyway," Snape focused again on Harry, "my point is that you are entirely capable of achieving level 4 and possibly even 5 if you truly put in the focus and effort. I will admit that my expectations were higher, but like I said, it was based on what I knew of your parents. I suppose there was also the influence of …. the rumors about your destiny to defeat the Dark Lord."
Harry did not know how to respond. How the hell was he expected to defeat someone so much more powerful and capable than him? His enemies were entirely out of his league! Even if he worked as hard as he could, trained as much as he could, they were still so far beyond. These people, they had been born with more with more intelligence, power and even resources beyond what he could imagine.
He took another deep breath. This was not the time to panic, he told himself. Not in front of the professor, if he wanted to hold on to any semblance of dignity. So he focused on the topic at hand again, and said: "None of the students you mentioned are beyond level 5. How -"
Snape interrupted him before he could form the question. "That's not actually true. There are at least one or two level 5 students in each year, but level 6 students are rare, and almost always a result of dedicated effort. There was Miss Tonks of Hufflepuff, but she graduated before you came to Hogwarts. Currently at Hogwarts, Mr Diggory would qualify, another Hufflepuff, I believe you've played Quidditch against him. The only other person that I believe has the potential is actually someone in your year. But since you are all so young, and we're talking about outliers, it is hard to make these projections."
"Is it Hermione?"
"While I would not discount the possibility, Mr Potter, she is not the one I am thinking of. I do not believe that you have had any significant interaction with her until now, which is why I did not use her as an example. But Miss Greengrass from my house is naturally able to match Miss Granger's results without any significant effort, and as far as I can tell, more interested in spending time on projects beyond this school's curriculum, allowing Miss Granger and Miss Patil to fight for the top spot."
Harry made a mental note to find out more about this mysterious Slytherin girl. He had seen her in class, of course, but not paid much attention since she was quiet, polite and had never caused any problems for him.
"Amusingly enough," Snape mused, "I would have to say that Miss Lovegood from Ravenclaw is naturally also at level 5, but I do not believe she has any motivation to go beyond that."
"And since I can anticipate the next question you might want to ask, let me tell you that there are no natural level 6 students currently at Hogwarts. The probability of that happening is approximately once in an entire generation, with examples like the Headmaster, the Dark Lord and some of his closest followers. There has not been one in a while, which isn't surprising given the limited number of students, which is a direct consequence of the violence in the 70s."
"However, we have spent enough time on estimating the abilities of others. It is time to focus on your situation. Think about what you want, and what you're willing to do about it. The rest is beyond your control. Good night!" The door to the classroom opened again, a clear sign of dismissal.
Harry quietly nodded and slowly started making his way back to his common room, unable to reconcile his supposed destiny with the information he had just been given.
As soon as he turned the corner, he found Hermione waiting for him. She did not know what had happened, but she took one look at his face, and pulled him in for a hug. As a small smile formed on his face and he returned the gesture, he decided that even if the future seemed terrifying, he would not let that affect today.