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The Visible Beauty of a Voice That Sings

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Liam almost doesn’t try out for The X Factor.

It’s a hard decision to make because music means so much to him, more than anyone could ever understand, but at the same time, the thought of being around thousands of musicians makes Liam feel more anxious than he’s felt in a long while. He’s not so sure that he can handle it, that much music in one place, not with how he is.

But he goes. Of course he goes. And it’s not easy for him, but it’s what he wants, and so when all the colors in front of his eyes block the world out for him like a screen, he doesn’t mind so much having to hold on to his mum’s elbow just to keep upright, or to make sure that he’s going the right way.

She looks at him, sometimes, when she thinks he isn’t watching, like she feels bad for him. It is what it is, being a sound-color synesthete, and it’s all Liam’s ever known; he wouldn’t change it for the world, even though he knows that it would make things easier for him in the long run. But what his mum doesn’t understand, and what most people don’t understand, is that as Liam’s standing there, swallowed up by that massive crowd and all of the sounds that it makes, he looks at the fireworks that are dancing in front of his eyes, the greens and the fuchsias and the bright, bright yellows, and he feels lucky.

Most people only hear the beauty of music, but Liam gets to see it, too.

He struggles, in boot camp and when he’s walking the hallways and when he’s doing nothing at all, because there are so many voices everywhere and they’re all giving him something different, different colors and textures and shapes. Before The X Factor, Liam only ever saw fireworks—little pinpricks of color that explode outward and then fade, disappear, only to come back again—but now Liam sees wavy lines and straight lines, bubbles and kaleidoscopes of color. It’s too much for him, even though he tells himself that it’s not.

There are a lot of talented people that have made it as far as he has, and he supposes that maybe all that competition should make him nervous. It doesn’t, though, because he’s confident in his voice and how it sounds, and even though the others can sing, Liam knows a side of music that most people can only dream of, and that gives him the one up.

Thinking like that—it’s a large part of why Liam doesn’t see it coming; he gets cut, sent home, told that he’s done, and he suddenly doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know how he can go back to his normal life, a life where there’s not music everywhere he goes, and so he lingers, spends as much time in the building as he thinks can until being there just makes him feel worse than he already does, and then—

And then he gets called back. It’s a large group of them, four girls and five guys, and they’re put back on stage in front of the judges. He stands there, his arm around some boy named Zayn, and Liam gets this feeling like he’ll want to remember this, like something about this exact moment will change everything for him.

Simon says, “We’ve decided to put you both through to Judges’ Houses,” and that’s it, Liam’s life completely and irrevocably changed.

And suddenly Liam’s in a band.

Liam doesn’t really hear any of the other boys sing until after they’re grouped together.

“Lads, we’re in a band,” Niall says that night, as they hang together and try to wrap their heads around it all. He sing-songs it, half just shouting, “We’re in a band, we’re in a band!” and that makes him the first one that Liam sees. His color is faint because he’s not actually singing, not properly, but Liam still manages to catch the mix of blues and greens that spring up and then disappear, as quickly as they come.
They stay up for hours, the five of them, goofing around and talking about themselves and singing, just singing, anything and everything so long as they know the words, and even when they don't. When Louis sings, Liam sees fuchsia, a bit of teal, and when it's Harry, Liam's eyes are assaulted with nothing but burnt orange, its equal measures of muted and striking making Liam wonder, not for the first time, what a person's color says about them.
He doesn't think about it for long, though, because when Zayn sings for the first time, Liam almost forgets how to breathe. Zayn's voice is red, unrelentingly and unapologetically red, dozens of other colors mixing in and fading out as he changes pitch. Liam's never seen anything quite like it before, a voice that is as constant as it is ever-changing, and he tries his hardest not to stare at Zayn, or at his voice. He tells Zayn about it, too, when they're all lying like sardines in two pushed-together hotel twin beds, the lights in the room shut off as they slowly drift off to sleep.
"You have the most beautiful voice I've ever seen," Liam says, whispering because it's a secret, because it's truer than anything he's ever said in his entire life.
Zayn just laughs, quietly because the other are asleep, and he props himself up on one elbow, looks at Liam's face. "You're so out of it," he says, and Liam wishes, wishes that he could see laughter, too.

Their first real performance together—not Judges’ Houses, although that was real, too, but the first week in front of the live audience—is when Liam really sees how it’s going to go. They choose Viva La Vida, and Simon tells them it’s the right song, the one that will show people that they are there to win it all; Liam won’t let himself do anything other than listen to Simon, because no matter how he looks at it, Simon’s the reason that they’re even there to begin with, and Simon’s the reason they’re going to win.

During the practice week, Zayn has a hard time keeping in time with the music, and Savan makes them sing it again and again, over and over. He tells them, “You guys, help him out,” like they’ll be able to help Zayn when Savan himself can’t. Zayn’s voice is beautiful when he sings, but when he cuts himself off, or thinks that he can’t do it, his colors don’t just fade; they shut off and completely disappear, and it worries Liam, a little, if he’s to be honest, both because he needs Zayn to sing well and because he doesn’t like losing something that breathtaking.

“It’s just—I’m just off,” Zayn says during a break, when it’s just the two of them still in the practice room. The others have gone for food, promising to bring something back, because when Zayn had said that he was staying behind to practice, Liam figured it wasn’t much of a choice for him to make; they’re in this together, and if they all get it down, get it right—Liam thinks that the five of them could be amazing.

“You’re just overthinking it,” Liam says, although maybe he’s not the one who should be helping Zayn. Liam sees music, sees the time that he needs to keep in the way that the colors come and go and change, and so he’s never really had Zayn’s problem. The worst thing that could happen to Liam is that he forgets the words, and there’s no way he’s doing that.

“I know,” Zayn says, and he runs his hand along the back of his neck. “I know, I know. It’s just hard.”

“It’s not hard,” Liam says. “You know the song, you know how it goes, now just stop thinking about it and do it.”

The strange thing about that is that it actually works, and after lunch, all five of them sing perfectly in time.

“Have you always been a witch doctor, all this time?” Louis asks after their first perfect run. “I’m a little hurt you didn’t tell me.”

“He told me,” Harry says, which isn’t true but still manages to get a rise out of Louis; he gasps, a hand to his mouth, like hearing that is the ultimate betrayal.

“Do I not get any credit for my role in this?” Zayn asks.

Louis turns to him, opens his mouth like he’s about to respond, but then Niall cuts him off, says, “Can we have a snack break soon?” and everyone loses their heads. They only just got back from lunch.

After that, the song feels like a cakewalk, and later, when they sing it on the stage in front of the judges and the live audience and whoever happens to be watching at home, they smash it. They own it, they really do, and Liam looks around even though he can’t see the crowd because of the stage lights; he can see the four voices next to him, the way they spark and turn and intertwine, and the colors just should not go, they shouldn’t work, and yet they do. They’re beautiful together, and Liam’s got a good feeling about this.

The thing about synesthesia—for Liam, anyways—is that sometimes, he just forgets that he has it. Most of the time, the color isn’t too intense that he can’t just ignore it, and he learns how to live with singers, how to be around musicians, how to look past the colors and live like they’re not there. Sometimes, being able to do that is the most helpful thing in the world; other times, Liam feels like there’s a huge, gaping hole running through the middle of him, taking out everything that makes him who he is and giving him nothing in return.

“What’s the weirdest thing about you?” Louis asks them one night. “If I’m going to win this show with you people, these are the kinds of things that I need to know. Just in case.”

“Just in case what?” Zayn asks, and Louis says, “Just in case—shh,” and he bats away the question like it’s not relevant. Liam supposes that maybe it really isn’t.

“Well, I have four nipples,” Harry says. “Does that count?”

“No, you don’t, you liar!” Niall hollers, and so Harry lifts up his shirt; he’s only got two nipples, and Louis pinches both of them.

“I only have one functioning kidney,” Liam says when it’s his turn, because to him that is weird; it’s something that he notices every day, too, always watching how much he drinks and what he eats and trying to be healthy because of it.

“How many are you supposed to have?” Niall asks, and he looks genuinely worried, like he might only have one kidney, too, and just never have realized it.

“Two, you twat,” Harry says, and then Niall tackles him to the ground, throws him in a headlock while everyone else watches on and ignores Harry’s pleas for help.

“The weirdest thing about me is that I actually like being in a band with you lot,” Zayn says, but when Liam looks at him, Zayn rolls his eyes and pulls a face, like he just wants to make sure that Liam knows he’s joking.

It hits Liam, then, how much he likes Zayn and not just Zayn’s voice. He doesn’t know what to do with that.

They get bored a lot, surprisingly. Sometimes, they have so much to be doing that Liam wonders how they’ll manage, but other times, they’ve got hours and hours of nothing to fill.

It’s Louis’s idea to do the Quickfire videos, and he acts so ridiculous when they film them, wearing bunny ears and interrupting them whenever they try to give their answers. Liam plays against Zayn and he loses so badly at first, because Zayn does his accent and Liam can’t think straight. He gets knocked out in less than a minute, with the way Louis judges.

“You’re killing me,” Liam says. “I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“There are only three rules, Payne Liam,” Louis tells him. “You can’t hesitate, you can’t pause, and you can’t laugh! And you did all three!”

“Yeah, you’re pretty terrible at this,” Zayn agrees, back in his normal voice, and Liam groans. He’s not terrible, just not all that good, either, not with these rules.

“You get one more chance,” Louis says. “New round, and this one is for the bacon. Cameras ready? And go!”

Zayn’s first question for him is, “If you could date any celebrity, who would it be?” and Liam thinks he’s lucky, really, that he says Pixie Lott and not Zayn Malik, which would have been the truth. It makes him stumble over asking his next question, and he can feel his face heat up. Everything goes alright in the end, though; Zayn gives some ridiculous answers and Liam sticks with the Pixie Lott answer, and the both of them end up laughing a lot more than Louis penalizes them for.

Liam wins that round, miraculously, except for how he doesn’t. Louis declares Harry the victor, even though he wasn’t even playing, and the two of them celebrate like they just won the lotto.

It’s hard—not just for Liam, but for all of them—to lose The X Factor after having made it so far. Third place says a lot, but it also leaves them with exactly what they had when they started out: nothing. They still don’t have a recording contract, even though they now have each other, and Liam feels horrible for wondering if that’s enough.

On stage, Zayn says that One Direction isn’t done, and that they’re going to keep singing together, keep making music together. They never really talked about it because they always just sort of assumed that they’d win if they worked hard enough, but they don’t win, and the second Zayn says it, Liam knows it’s true.

They leave The X Factor house and move right into a hotel room, just for the night. They get one room and they push the beds together like they did when they first met, and then the five of them lay down in a tangle of limbs, the contact a comforting reminder that they are not alone.

Harry’s the first one to speak. He says, “I just…” and then he doesn’t say anything else, not for a long while. No one else says anything, either, and then five, ten, a hundred minutes later, Harry finishes, “I just really thought we had it.”

“We almost did,” Louis says. His face is pressed into the side of Harry’s neck, because that’s how they are, and Liam doesn’t understand how that’s not too much, how it’s not smothering them. “Almost.”

“Yeah,” Niall says. He’s in the middle of them all, staring at the ceiling. “Almost.

And suddenly it’s just—there’s nothing comforting about it, about the fact that they’re all together, taking up each other’s space. They’re all there, but there are no colors in front of Liam’s eyes, because they’re together but acting like they’re not together, and Liam can’t stand it.

He gets up and leaves the room, just to be away, and he sits by himself in the hallway. Zayn follows a few minutes later, sits cross-legged in front of Liam, and then doesn’t say anything. He quirks one side of his mouth up, just for a second, just to say hello.

They sit there like that for a while, the two of them on the floor, leaning back against the hallway walls, just looking at each other and not saying anything. Zayn’s got a pillow crease running down the side of his cheek, and Liam wants to trace it with the side of his thumb.

He says, “Could you—I don’t know—sing something, maybe?”

It says a lot about Zayn, Liam thinks, that he doesn’t even question it, just starts singing Torn, quietly and only for Liam, like that was at all a normal thing for him to have asked.

It doesn’t make any sense at all how Zayn’s voice makes Liam feel so much better in such a short amount of time. The screen of fireworks pulls out in front of Liam’s eyes, and the color is so heavy that Liam almost can’t see Zayn’s face anymore, just his voice. But it’s so red, and so beautiful, flecked with orange and teal, like Harry and Louis, and then with blue and green, like Niall, and then with white, and Liam’s never seen white in a voice before, and he can’t help it, can’t keep his eyes from wandering, from flickering left and right, all over the place, just to take in as much of it as he can.

Zayn stops singing, then, and the colors fade away until they’re gone, leaving behind just the two of them in their wake. It feels different this time; better, somehow.

“Vas happening?” Zayn finally asks, quietly enough so that Liam knows he means it, but still silly enough that he knows Zayn will let him get away with not answering, if he doesn’t want to talk.

Liam’s never told anyone before, but he doesn’t even really think about it, just says, “I have synesthesia,” and then it’s done, out in the open.

“I’m gonna have to Google that,” Zayn says, and he sounds sorry about it, like he knows that Liam’s opening up to him, telling him about something important, even though he doesn’t really understand.

Liam shakes his head and says, “What I mean is, I’ve got this thing where the neurons in my brain kind of cross wires, and so I see music as color.”

“Oh,” Zayn says, and Liam waits for him to ask all sorts of questions about it. Instead, Zayn says something completely unexpected: “Are you gonna be okay?”

“Yeah,” Liam says. “Yeah, it’s—I mean, I’ve had it my whole life, it’s fine.”

“Oh,” Zayn says, and then he surprises Liam again by still not asking him what he sees. Instead, he waves a finger a the hallway around him like he knows why Liam’s there, and he says, “We’ll be fine, you know. One Direction, I mean. It shouldn’t be just up to you to worry about everything.”

“I’m not,” Liam says, even though he’s not entirely sure it’s true. “Worrying about it, I mean.” And then because he’s come this far he says, “I wasn’t kidding when I said that you have the most beautiful voice I’ve ever seen.”

The emotions that flit across Zayn’s face make Liam want to laugh, almost. At first he’s confused, but then his face relaxes as he remembers, as he realizes. His eyebrows dart up and a smile spreads across his face, and Liam feels like he could look at Zayn for days.

That’s what you meant,” Zayn says. “I thought you’d just gone mental.”

“No,” Liam says. “Your voice is just…” He trails off, shakes his head. He doesn’t know how to explain it, not really.

“What’s yours look like?” Zayn asks, and it actually catches Liam off guard.

“I don’t know; I can’t see it,” Liam tells him, because he can’t. He’s never been able to see his own voice, or maybe he always has and so he just never notices it. Either way, there’s nothing noticeable there when he sings.

Zayn looks at him for a second and then looks away as he says, “If I could see any voice in the world, I’d want it to be yours.”

Warmth spreads through Liam’s chest like fireworks exploding in a mass of color and sound.

Things change after that, in a lot of ways. Simon gives them a recording contract and they do a lot of interviews, Harry grows more confident and Louis gets louder, and Zayn starts singing under his breath, all the time, constantly. Liam doesn’t think he even realizes that he’s doing it, but he still sings to himself when he’s on the computer or spreading jam on his toast or getting made-up for a photo shoot. It makes it look like Zayn’s got little clouds of red popping up and following him everywhere that he goes, and Liam can’t decide whether or not that’s a good thing. It’s distracting.

But the best part of being done with The X Factor is that, despite the lack of sleep and downtime, they get to actually make their own music. Liam studies everything that goes into each song, the instrumentals and the vocals and the colors that they make together. Zayn sits next to him sometimes, slouched on the couch behind the controls, and there’s no doubt in Liam’s mind that Zayn knows exactly what he’s there for. And so Liam says quietly, “That was really pink, wow,” or, “Climbing the walls looked just like a kiwi, almost,” and Zayn nods and smiles like they’re sharing a secret. And then the next thing Liam knows, Zayn’s gone, tugged away by Louis, or invited on a food run with Niall, and then it’s just Liam and the music, alone together on the couch.

People start showing up, too, tons of people outside the studio just waiting for a photo or an autograph or anything, and Liam really can’t wrap his head around it, how meeting him, of all people, can make someone’s day.

“It’s ‘cause you’re the cute one,” Niall says as they head outside to say hello to the fans, and Liam laughs.

“No, I’m not,” he says. “That’s Harry.”

Zayn walks up behind him, then, throws an arm over Liam’s shoulders and grabs Liam’s chin with his other hand. For a second, Liam thinks Zayn’s about to kiss him, but then he snaps out of it, realizes how ridiculous that thought is.

“You don’t know you’re beautiful,” Zayn sings, and his voice explodes in little bursts of red and pale, pale green. Liam’s eyes flicker back and forth just barely, but Zayn probably notices it anyway.

Niall laughs and says, “Turns out the song’s about Liam,” and then he knocks his shoulder into Liam’s, sending both him and Zayn stumbling the other way.

“Easy, Niall Horan!” Louis yells at them from where he is, already signing for people at the fence. “Don’t break my singer; I need him!”

For some reason, the fans really go crazy for that.

When they finally finish the album, they aren’t given any downtime; they’re sent immediately on a press tour, and do dozens of radio shows and small performances. It’s tiring, but in a way that doesn’t feel like work, and Liam can’t believe that this is his life, his career.

“I’m exhausted,” Harry says, stumbling into Liam’s hotel room for breakfast. He’s not dressed and his hair is a mess, and he’s the last of them to show up. “I feel like I’ve been up all night.”

“Same,” Niall says. “I want to go back to bed.”

“I knew we wouldn’t be getting much sleep,” Louis agrees, “but I did think we’d get more than this,” and Liam just looks between the three of them, because there’s no way that they don’t realize what they’re saying. But—maybe they don’t; their faces are tired, serious, and Harry’s the only who has anything even remotely resembling a successful poker face.

Liam flicks his eyes toward Zayn, and Zayn’s looking back at him like he can’t believe it either.

“I tell you every night to go to bed earlier,” Liam says, and he looks down at his plate as he says it, tries to pull back his smile. “You’re not gonna get any more sleep if you keep making the same mistakes.”

“Exactly,” Zayn says. “No one else can enforce your bedtime; it’s gotta be you.”

“What are we even talking about?” Louis asks.

“We’re just saying,” Liam tells him, “that if there’s just one thing that you should be mindful of—”

“It’s that an earlier bedtime will save you tonight,” Zayn finishes, and apparently, that’s when the others start to catch on.

“Oh, fuck off,” Harry says, and Liam adds, “Seriously, it is just too early for that kind of behavior.”

Only then Niall looks up from his breakfast and says, “I wish I knew what the hell you’re talking about,” and Liam just loses it, bursts out laughing, same as Zayn.

They debut at number two on the UK Album Chart, and Liam thinks there must be some sort of mistake, because they’re just five lads from nowhere, really, and so it’s insane that that many people would even know who they are. They had hoped that they’d do well, but well enough to place number two? The thought honestly never even crossed his mind.

A bit of a party happens at Louis and Harry’s, just between them and whoever happens to be close enough to come out for it, and everything is a bit of a blur, everyone congratulating them and hugging them and complimenting them on the album. Liam says thank you and I can’t believe it and it’s crazy, I know over and over again, until the words lose all meaning.

He wakes up sometime in the early morning, around four, to find that he fell asleep on the couch. Zayn’s tiptoeing past the tv, and that must be what woke Liam up, because he doesn’t know what else it could’ve been.

“Shit,” Zayn whispers when he sees Liam’s awake. “Sorry.”

No one else is in the room with them, but Liam still whispers back when he says, “Don’t worry about it.”

There’s some time after that where they don’t say anything else, and Zayn just walks towards the couch, shoves Liam over until there’s enough room for the both of them to fit, if their bodies are pressed tight together. Zayn squeezes on and Liam throws an arm over his waist to hold him in place. He thinks that maybe they’re both about to fall back asleep when Zayn says, “Congrats on the album, by the way.”

“You too,” Liam says. “Who’d have thought?”

Zayn laughs a little at that, the kind of laugh that Liam can barely hear, even in the quiet living room, and he says, “Simon Cowell.”

“Yeah,” Liam says, and he laughs a bit, too. “I honestly thought he was crazy, putting us together.”

“Maybe he’s got synesthesia, too,” Zayn says, “and he just saw how well our voices fit. They do fit, yeah?”

“Yeah, they do,” Liam says. “But they shouldn’t. I think Simon’s just a mad genius at that sort of thing, though.”

“Same,” Zayn says, even though he doesn’t really have to. “I was only joking.”

And then because he feels like maybe Zayn wants to know, not because it’s synesthesia but because it’s Liam, Liam says, “Harry’s voice—it’s this dark orange color, kind of like that sweater he has. You know, the one that’s six sizes too big.”

“Just the one color?” Zayn asks, and Liam wishes he could see Zayn’s face when he asks it.

“Yeah, but that’s not normal,” he says. “Like, Niall is all blues and greens, and Louis’s is like that Crayola color, hot magenta, or razzmatazz, maybe, but with teal in it.”

“That’s mental,” Zayn says, yawning halfway through. “You see that all the time?”

“When they sing,” Liam says. “But I can see past it. It’s like looking through a screen, almost, but not really.”

“Mental,” Zayn says again. “Absolutely insane. I can’t imagine seeing that stuff all the time.”

“I can’t imagine not seeing it,” Liam says. “Don’t you want to know what yours looks like?”

“Not really,” Zayn says. “I like the mystery of it all.”

Liam can’t tell if Zayn’s joking or not, and so he doesn’t respond, just tightens his arm around Zayn’s waist and feels the movement of Zayn’s body as he breathes. And then, when he’s not entirely sure if Zayn’s even awake anymore, he says as quietly as he can, “Hey, Zayn?”

“Yeah?” Zayn says, shifting a bit on the couch so that he’s looking at Liam, and Liam just—he just kisses Zayn because he wants to, and Zayn kisses back. It’s strange that it’s not strange, to suddenly be kissing his friend, only then Liam realizes that maybe none of this is sudden at all, that maybe he and Zayn have been building up to this moment since the day they met.

Looking back, he’s surprised it took him this long to realize it.

Their first headlining show after the album drops is a sold-out crowd, and they all get so nervous that Liam feels like they’re back in front of the judges.

“I kind of think I might cry,” Harry jokes, drumming his fingers on his thighs backstage.

“Don’t,” Louis says, and even though he’s acting like he’s not, Liam can tell that he’s nervous, too. “You know that Niall gets upset when people cry.”

“It’s true,” Niall says. “And then I’ll cry, too, and I get really red.” Harry laughs at that and Louis beams at Niall for it.

They get up a few minutes before they’re due on and trade high-fives, and Louis gives them each a pinch for good measure. Zayn knocks his shoulder against Liam’s and says, “Alright, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Liam says, and then it’s time, and they run on stage.

From the very opening chords, Liam knows there’s something different about this show. He opens his mouth to sing, and when he does, there is so much color, tons of it everywhere, and it takes him a second to realize that he’s not seeing his own voice; he’s seeing everyone else’s, the voices of all the people out there, singing along with him, and it’s a miracle that he doesn’t lose his place, or stumble over the words at that realization.

It’s the most amazing, surreal thing that he’s ever seen, every color that he can think of in all the shapes he’s ever seen, and then some. And that’s not even the most amazing part of it all, because behind that, behind all the colors of all the voices that are there in that arena, is the reason that they’re even there in the first place: to see Liam and his best friends put on a show.

It’s unbelievable, and Liam gets lost in it.

Afterwards, when they all make their way backstage with sweaty skin and racing hearts, Liam has a hard time believing any of it happened. Everyone’s hugging each other, laughing and celebrating, and Liam doesn’t even think about it, just pulls Zayn towards him by the wrist and, with one hand on the back of Zayn’s neck, presses their foreheads together.

He can’t stop smiling, and by the look of things, neither can Zayn.

“How was it?” Zayn asks.

“You should have seen them all,” Liam says, and he can still picture it, the colors of his band and the colors of their fans, the way they came and went and, once they were gone, the way Zayn smiled at him like maybe he didn’t need to see any of it to understand what Liam was feeling.

Liam stands there, half leaning on Zayn, and he shuts his eyes, tries to hold the image in his mind just a little bit longer, and colors bloom behind his eyelids.