Disclaimer: Naruto is the intellectual property of Masashi Kishimoto and various other parties. No money is being made from this story, and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.

Note: This is the sequel to "The Way of the Apartment Manager." It's still an AU story. In the canon timeline, Yukiko was one of the nameless casualties of the Kyuubi's attack... but in this world, she lived. Eight years later, the effects are beginning to snowball. Asuka Kureru suggested the idea that became the nucleus of this story, when she wondered if Sasuke might also end up as a tenant in Yukiko's apartment building. I've thrown a LOT of other stuff on top, but that was the original spark. Thanks, Asuka!

Additional Note: So yeah, I am working on this story again! As part of that process I have revised and reposted the previous fifteen chapters, so you might want to reread them for more reasons than just trying to remember what is even going on in this AU. The plot has not changed, but some character arcs have been slightly tweaked, one character's name is now different (mostly because I kept writing it wrong anyway), I got rid of a few lines and paragraphs that in retrospect made me wonder why I'd ever thought they were a good idea, some muddy passages are hopefully clearer, and I killed a lot of dashes and semi-colons with extreme prejudice, because holy shit I was addicted to overly complex punctuation from roughly 2003 to 2009. Anyway, my goal for 2016 is write one chapter every two months, but seeing as I always say I'll try to write faster (and then generally fail miserably to do so), I completely understand any skepticism on your part. *wry*

Summary: The reward for a job well done is a bigger job. In this case, Ayakawa Yukiko's new job is a lot more complicated than anyone expected. The Uchiha massacre and its aftermath, in the world of "The Way of the Apartment Manager."

Chapter the Sixteenth, in which Naga and Suisen demonstrate how not to dance with a partner, Yukiko and Seichi discuss assassination and dead relatives, and, to the author's relief, Kakashi's interrogation skills end up irrelevant to the plot.

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The Guardian in Spite of Herself: Chapter 16
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The others vanished before Naga had finished her warning - Kohaku underground, Suisen in a flash of light, and Kakashi and Kafunnokaze simply gone. And not a moment too soon. A rain of kunai pierced the layer of pine needles that carpeted the sandy forest soil, half of them sizzling on contact as if the blades themselves were on fire.

"You are trespassing on the lands of Gouzen-sama, the rightful daimyo of Volcano Country!" a high tenor voice said, echoing and reechoing from the trees with no clear point of origin. "All enemies and spies will be executed! Surrender and state your business and you may survive."

Yeah right.

"We are in lawful pursuit of an S-class missing-nin, under the authority of the Sandaime Hokage and the Master of Hidden Grass. Stand down and let us pass," Kakashi said. His voice echoed in an eerie mimic of whatever jutsu the ambushers had used.

A branch high in a nearby pine tree twitched. Naga grinned. Score one for the Copy Nin. Mirroring always freaked people out. Twitchy enemies got sloppy.

She drew a kunai from her thigh holster, careful not to disturb the pine needles that screened her from view. They prickled through the fabric of her clothes, teetering on the line between itch and pain, but Kafunnokaze's gloves and a bit of chakra let her keep a secure grip on the branch. She was a Leaf-nin. No way would she ever get caught because of a tree.

"Your masters have no authority over our country or clan," the Volcano-nin said after a long pause. "If your pursuit were lawful, we should have received a request for passage."

"Pursuit of an S-class criminal is covered under the treaties that ended the Third War. Special notice is not required. We entered Volcano Country legally at Aoitourou. Stand down and let us pass, or I will consider you guilty of aiding and abetting our target," Kakashi said.

He sounded almost bored. Bad move, if he really wanted to get out of this without a fight. On the other hand, if the fight was going to happen anyway, better for the other side to be worked up and wrong-footed.

Naga was glad it wasn't her job to weigh those options.

"Aoitourou is in rebellion against Gouzen-sama's authority. Their paperwork is illegal and invalid," the Volcano-nin snapped. "Surrender and submit to search and interrogation or we will kill you where you stand."

"Hidden Leaf and Hidden Grass are neutral with regard to Volcano Country's internal politics," Kakashi said. "I can't guarantee that my team will strike to incapacitate rather than kill."

"Neutrality is enmity and your scruples are weakness. You have until the count of three to surrender, or die," the Volcano-nin said. "One."

Naga eased along the branch toward the hidden Volcano-nin she'd spotted earlier.

"Two."

She braced her feet.

"Three."

Naga leapt.

The Volcano-nin dropped three seconds later, gurgling around a bruised throat and shattered collarbones. Naga dropped after her target, landed in a light, controlled crouch, and took in as much of the impromptu battlefield as she could.

Seven figures had melted out of hiding, standing in a loose arc around the clearing. Kakashi slouched to her right, deceptively relaxed. To her left, Suisen and Kafunnokaze stood back-to-back, both nursing bloody gashes along their arms in payment for the burns and the coughing fit afflicting two of the Volcano-nin. Kohaku was nowhere to be seen.

"Are you sure we can't talk this out?" Kakashi asked.

The Volcano-nin at the center of the arc - a tall, thin man with a dark gray tactical vest and a loose, ash-colored scarf wrapped around his neck - sawed his arm angrily through the air. "Stop mocking us! We found your spies four days ago. Your denials are useless! Gouzen-sama's honor demands that-"

High tenor voice, no patience, definitely thought he was in charge. Naga tabbed him as Kakashi's problem, tuned out his rant, and studied the others instead. Five genin, two on either side of the hothead. Two about her age, presumably with a chance at making chuunin and some potential tricks up their sleeves. Three more at least a decade older, long past any chance of promotion but with a lot of experience to balance their lack of special skills. Two teams, then, which meant Hothead had at least a high-level chuunin as backup. Maybe even another jounin.

The high-level shinobi in question anchored the far left end of the arc: a short, heavyset woman in that same gray tactical vest, only instead of a scarf she wore thick, ash-colored wraps along her arms and legs, from her shoulders and hips all the way down to her fingers and toes. Judging by the shiny burn marks, the fabric was fire-resistant. And the burns themselves were strange, all precise, narrow lines instead of irregular blotches. What fighting style needed that much insulation?

"Excuse me," Kakashi said when Hothead finally paused for breath. "I think you're working from mistaken assumptions. What spies are you talking about?"

The tall Volcano-nin snarled and lunged, a corona of flickering shadows springing to life around his outspread fingers. Kakashi countered with a gout of flame and a rapid dodge halfway up a tree, and Naga shunted their fight to her peripheral attention because she had more important problems.

"Mine!" Kafunnokaze shouted as a wall of dust-choked wind snapped up around four of the genin. He stepped through and vanished, leaving Suisen and Naga to face the last Volcano-nin and her mysterious skills.

As Suisen pulled leaf-attenuated sunlight into her mirrors, the Volcano-nin drew a pair of short metal sticks from a thigh holster. Naga tensed, but instead of throwing them the Volcano-nin flicked her left hand through a rapid chain of seals, then settled the sticks solidly into each hand. Thin streams of sandy earth poured upward and latched onto their rounded ends as if magnetized.

Naga didn't wait to see the end result of the jutsu. Strike fast and hard and it wouldn't matter; a fist to the jaw disrupted anybody's focus. But the Volcano-nin dodged her attack - tucked and rolled and came up still holding those sticks and their trails of sand - and Naga lost a precious second avoiding Suisen and catching her balance with a ricochet off a handy tree.

The sand glowed red-hot, then flashed into nearly transparent whips of molten glass. Naga felt the heat on her face and arms from a good three body-lengths away.

Ah. That explained the insulation.

It did not explain how the fuck Naga and Suisen were supposed to take the woman down. Her clothes would protect against Suisen's signature attack, and while Naga was fine taking a slice or two from a normal whip in order to immobilize and strike its wielder, she didn't have any fancy eyes to help her find a safe path around whips that could probably burn through bone.

Start with the easy part: take out the support. Naga faded behind Suisen, angling toward the final Volcano genin who was pulling his wounded and unconscious comrade toward the clearing's edge.

"Hisao, protocol six-black-water," the Volcano-nin called over the roar of Kafunnokaze's whirlwind and the thumps and scuffles of Kakashi's duel with Hothead.

"Yes, Anei-sensei!" the genin said, and swapped himself and his teammate out of sight just as Naga's foot slammed through empty air where his sternum had been.

Naga rolled with the fall and leapt back to her feet. "Fuck."

The Volcano-nin - Anei - smiled, thin and sharp. "Nice try." Then she attacked.

The glass whips writhed like living snakes, their paths and lengths set as much by chakra as physics. Years of fallen pine needles flickered and smoked in their wake, and the air itself clapped and cracked in protest at the speed and heat of Anei's strikes - not as fast as leather or cord, but more than fast enough. Naga hurled herself into a mad dance, weaving around the lashing strands with no space for retaliation and barely time for breath.

A trailing drop of glass snapped off the end of one whip and fell onto the edge of her sandal. The sole promptly caught fire. Naga lost a precious second grinding the embers out and only escaped the next strike by a finger's breadth.

"Tangle her!" Suisen hissed as she dove past in her own evasive maneuver.

Yes. If they could get Anei to cross her whips-

Naga fumbled a trio of shuriken out of her thigh holster and hurled them in a flat arc toward the Volcano-nin. Suisen mirrored her from the other side.

Anei's smile widened. She flicked her whips out to intercept the blades - the metal warped and melted on contact - and brought them back around through each other. The glass merged and separated smooth as water, scattering a handful of white-hot droplets. Small fires hissed and crackled to life among the fallen pine needles, licking outward in a ring from the bare ground at Anei's feet.

"Fuck," Naga said, and arched up and over the next strike, curving her spine well past the limits of human flexibility. Somewhere to her left, Suisen yelped as she miscalculated a dodge.

"Surrender and I'll keep Sukkiro from killing you," Anei said. "We'll even let you go after the interrogation."

"Sorry, can't do that!" Suisen called back. She sounded out of breath.

Naga raked her brain for options. She was fast and had an advantage when it came to contortions, and Suisen's style was built around acrobatics, but they'd probably miss a dodge before Anei ran out of chakra. Suisen needed precious seconds of stable footing to gather enough light for an attack. Even if she got that chance, there was no way something as relatively mild as concentrated sunburn would throw someone armored to withstand molten glass.

Wait.

Sunburn from sunlight.

The sun had more tricks up its sleeve than heat.

"Glow!" Naga shouted at Suisen. "As bright as you can! And keep moving!"

"But-"

Naga dropped flat to evade a strike, then rolled frantically sideways under the return stroke. Even a near-miss was almost too hot to bear. "Glow!"

Yeah, it wasn't the best idea. Anything bright enough to blind Anei would blind Naga just as well, and probably Kafunnokaze, Kakashi, and Hothead (Sukkiro?) to boot. But it was what she had, so she'd use it.

What else did she have? Trees, pine needles, dirt, two fights at her back, one enemy vanished, one ally doing who the fuck even knew what, no useful jutsu, and not enough shuriken to gamble that one might get through Anei's defense.

Something tickled at the back of Naga's mind, pieces of a plan trying to fit together.

As Suisen's reflected glare hit the threshold of 'ow shit I'm blind,' Naga grabbed a handful of sand and pine needles and hurled it toward Anei. The Volcano-nin dodged. Not blocked! Dodged. And came up swinging wildly. She'd lost track of Naga's position and couldn't check everywhere because of Suisen's ever-shifting light.

Naga ran straight up the nearest tree.

On the ground, Anei retracted her left-hand whip, reshaping the glass into something more like a thick kodachi. She spun on her heel, snapped the remaining whip in quick, probing strikes, tilted her head to listen through the rush of Kafunnokaze's wind-wall (still up, what was taking him so long to deal with?) and the thumps and shouts that marked Kakashi and Sukkiro's fight inside a bubble of ashy darkness.

Naga squinted past Suisen's glare and inched out along a wide, heavy limb that stuck into the clearing like a massive, prickly fan. Then she waited for Anei and Suisen to move within range.

One breath. Two. Five. Ten. And... now.

Naga chopped the bulk of the branch free with a reinforced knife-hand strike and rode it down. Pine sap flashed into flame as Anei raised her whip and sword to counter, but the net of branches and needles was broad enough to clip the Volcano-nin despite her evasion, and pin her weapons down for a precious second.

"And a second's all you need," Naga muttered to herself as she rolled away from the burning branch and shook out her aching knuckles. Then she nudged Anei with her foot to check that the Volcano-nin was really unconscious - she'd played dead too often herself not to be suspicious - before gingerly dragging the woman out of the fire.

Suisen, scorched and sweaty, bent over beside Naga to catch her breath. "I cannot believe you hit her with a tree," she said after a moment. "I know you're a Leaf-nin, but that's taking word association a little too seriously."

Naga shrugged. "Worked, didn't it? Where's Kohaku?"

"Hunting down the genin this one sent to grab reinforcements," Suisen said. "Standard protocol: Kaze-kun and I are the first response. Haku-kun runs perimeter, deals with unexpected whatever, and provides backup if necessary. We didn't need backup because we're awesome, but he can come secure our prisoner any time now." She knocked the heel of her foot into the ground in a rapid syncopated pattern.

As the soil rippled in response, Suisen adjusted her mirrors and added, "While he's taking care of that, let's give the boys a hand. You go check on Kaze-kun and I'll shine a light into whatever your sensei is doing with that skinny weirdo."

She dashed off into the chakra-fueled shadows without waiting for a response.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o

The caravan left Aoukouchou around noon, after a profitable morning of trade and haggling. Yukiko had introduced Seichi to a factor in the cloth trade with whom she did occasional business on her cousin's behalf, but Ryouma-san had nothing currently in stock that Yuichiro wanted, and vice versa, so they came away with nothing but gossip and the aftertaste of good tea.

"It keeps surprising me how little actual business is involved in business," Seichi remarked as he swung up onto a communal wagon's front seat beside Yukiko. He attempted to drop his arm across her shoulders. She ducked out from under the gesture. "You break my heart, Yuki-chan!" he said, then added in a lower tone, "Your contact seemed overly interested in news from Konoha."

"Mmm. He didn't know anything specific, judging by how vague his questions were, but I don't think Intelligence can keep word of the massacre clamped down for much longer," Yukiko agreed. "It's obvious that something went down, at least if you pay attention to schedules and personnel patterns. And people in Fire Country do pay attention to Konoha. It isn't safe not to."

"So long as they don't pay too much attention," Seichi said. "Otherwise Anbu might start paying attention back."

"Pointed attention, I assume," Yukiko said. She glanced around. Nobody was walking on either side of the wagon, but she wrapped the reins around her wrist and set up a distraction veil just in case. When she turned back to Seichi, his eyes had gone cold and he had a quartet of playing cards fanned between his fingers like kunai.

"There's no danger! I just wanted to talk about the mission for a few minutes," Yukiko said. "I'm not worried about gathering information or keeping our covers. I've been doing that since I was a genin. But I'd like a better idea of how the assassination part will go. Obviously we can't make specific plans until we know what we're facing, but what should I expect in general terms? And how can I be most helpful to you and Kurenai?"

Seichi didn't precisely relax, but the tension in his posture and chakra shifted subtly: a predator idly watching a game trail rather than one actively stalking prey. "Generally speaking, we want to create one of two scenarios," he said as he shuffled the four cards into the rest of his suddenly visible deck. "Either I get a minute alone with the target, or I get a clear shot in a public location where a sudden death will create enough ambient chaos to divert suspicion away from our team. In both cases your job is to act as distraction."

Yukiko frowned. "That seems reasonable enough. But won't the assassination itself be obvious enough for Amane's guards to lock the immediate area down? How will you get away?"

Seichi's smile glinted like sun on ice. He collapsed his deck into a single pile, then held up one card: the king of spades. "The only assassin you know is Hatake Kakashi. Right?"

Yukiko nodded.

"He gets assigned when Konoha needs to make a statement." Seichi flipped the card around; instead of the patterned back Yukiko expected, the two of hearts now faced forward. After a second, Seichi fanned the two of spades, diamonds, and clubs out from behind it. "I get assigned when plausible deniability is more important. I can't set up something completely undetectable within our likely timeframe, but I know how to maintain a cover persona and how to avoid both obvious wounds and chakra residue. Combine that with a distraction, and I should be able to buy just enough time to give myself an alibi for the apparent time of death."

Yukiko frowned again. "Okay. I'll bite. How do you kill someone in under a minute without leaving evidence?"

"Ah." Seichi's smile vanished, leaving nothing but cold. "Push your illusion out to both sides for a few seconds," he said.

Puzzled, Yukiko closed her eyes and expanded the little bubble of illusion until it brushed the trees on either side of the road. When she opened them, Seichi collapsed his fan of cards back to a singleton and flipped it around again, this time revealing the ace of spades. Then he flicked it over his shoulder in an apparently idle motion.

It should have fluttered down to be crushed under the wagon's wheels.

Instead, a massive tree branch crashed to the ground twenty meters away, sliced free with surgical precision.

Nobody else noticed.

"It's easier when the paper itself has some structure, but I can do that with any scrap," Seichi said. "It's a partial reconstruction of a battle technique developed in Hidden Rain. The original is much more versatile, but my version requires only minimal chakra use and is therefore better suited for assassination. Furthermore, because that chakra isn't structured into a formal jutsu, it dissipates without leaving a recognizable signature. Up close and personal I can make a cut small and fine enough that it will hardly bleed on the outside regardless of what happens inside the target's body. In the open, the apparent lack of a weapon causes confusion in and of itself, and I can make a kill shot from almost any distance so long as I have line-of-sight."

Huh. "Ame could do that," Yukiko said absently, most of her attention focused on pulling her genjutsu back in without accidentally dispelling it altogether. "Not the paper thing, I've never heard of that before. But the improbable aim. She said it was a clan thing."

Seichi shrugged and answered the implied question. "It's not a bloodline limit yet, but give it a few generations and we'll see. Fuuma tend to have wind affinities that manifest in similar knacks, and we train extensively to enhance them."

"That doesn't sound like Ame - not the training part," Yukiko said. "She was always trying to get me and Kasumi to ditch practice sessions with Hoshi-sensei and do silly things instead." Seichi made an inquiring noise, so she continued: "We hated that about her at first. Kasumi and I were both civilian-born and felt we had to be better than the best in order to get half as far, and it seemed like Ame didn't understand that being shinobi-born gave her a huge advantage over us."

She twitched the reins, redirecting the left-hand mule's attention back to the road and its job. "But after a while, we realized she stopped us from training constantly because she knew we had to work harder than she did. She wanted to make sure we didn't burn out. And every time she dragged us around town, she introduced us to at least one useful person - supplier, mission control agent, whatever - who'd treat us better once they knew we were connected to your clan. I still go to the same smith she did when I need to restock my kunai, and he still tells me to remind Ame she was running late with her bill payments whenever I stop by the memorial stone."

"That does sound like my cousin," Seichi said. "She was always late with gifts, too. We used to joke about it - say things like, 'Oh, Uncle Toushirou, I see that something important happened three months ago!' if we saw someone holding a package with her calligraphy on the label."

The warmth in his voice didn't match the slightly numb tiredness she'd started to associate with Seichi being himself, but it was an even worse fit for the assassin or the aggressive sociability he put on as Tsukene. Surprised, Yukiko turned toward him - but if his expression had ever changed, the evidence was gone. Only chill and impersonal assessment remained behind his eyes: the assassin face up once more.

"My cousin's quirks, entertaining though they were, aren't relevant to our mission," he said. "Did you have any other questions?"

Yukiko glanced forward to where Naruto and Sasuke were walking in the weeds at the side of the road, one gesticulating wildly and the other doing his best to pretend he was alone. She bit her lip, and carefully didn't look back toward Seichi.

"Mostly how I'm going to be an effective distraction when I also have to keep an eye on the kids and make sure they don't get in the way," she said. "But we can work that out once we're in Tengai and know what our covers will be. For now, we might as well enjoy the sunshine." She dropped the distraction jutsu as she spoke.

"An idea after my own heart, Yuki-chan!" Seichi said, sliding smoothly back into his cover persona, and once again attempted to sling an arm around her shoulder.

This was going to be a long trip.

o-o-o-o-o-o-o

"So," Kakashi said lightly, as he crouched over the prone body of the skinny, hotheaded Volcano jounin. "You said you found some spies four days ago. Tell me about them."

Sukkiro glared upward and, to Naga's amazement, managed not to say anything.

For five seconds. Then he began another rant about Gouzen-sama's honor.

"This isn't getting us anywhere," Kafunnokaze grumbled from across the row of unconscious prisoners. His hands shook slightly from exhaustion and blood loss as he wrapped bandages around Suisen's burns. Kohaku sprawled on Suisen's other side, uninjured but apparently drained from staying underground so long. Suisen combed the fingers of her free hand through his hair.

Naga's genin team had never been close like that. She and Tsukihime hadn't been either, but she thought they'd been getting there. Now they never would.

It hurt to think about that, so she didn't.

"Knock him out and move on to someone else," Kafunnokaze continued over Sukkiro's interminable spiel, "or pull out that genjutsu your eye's supposed to help with and see if he's more cooperative when he thinks bugs are crawling out from under his fingernails."

"An oddly specific threat," Kakashi said. "But no, I think a simple gag will be enough to save our ears. Two concussions in short order creates too much risk of accidental death or permanent brain injury, as does genjutsu strong enough to smash mental defenses without the benefit of surprise or an extensive interrogation period. Breaking Sukkiro-san, however annoying he is, would guarantee retaliation, and I'd prefer to leave Volcano Country without a hunting party on our trail. Wouldn't you agree, Anei-san?"

Naga jerked around to stare at the other Volcano jounin, who'd apparently awakened without attracting anyone's attention. Damn. She should've been keeping better watch, not getting distracted by Kakashi's lackadaisical interrogation tactics and might-have-beens.

Anei moved her fingers away from her now faintly singed bonds and sighed. "Sukkiro's a twit. But yes. We'd hunt you for that; honor demands as much. Honor is, however, less specific about a trade of information."

"Mmm," Kakashi said, finally turning to face her. "Here's a thought! I tell you what we need to know, you tell me what you need to know, and we'll bargain from there."

Anei looked at her own bonds, then at the drugged and trussed-up bodies of her students and Sukkiro's squad, then back at Kakashi with pointedly raised eyebrows. "Bargain. Sure."

Kakashi shrugged and crinkled his one visible eye into a smile. "I've survived worse negotiating positions. I'm sure you'll do fine. But I'll go first, which gives you the advantage when aiming your own questions. So. Where were these alleged spies found? Were they alive then, and if so, are they still alive now? Why do you think we're connected to them? Was there any sign of another person involved in the situation?"

"An interesting set of questions," Anei said.

"I will have you brought up before the elders as a traitor if you-" Sukkiro began.

Kohaku leaned forward and calmly stuffed the man's own scarf into his mouth, muffling the rest of his objection. Then he slumped back against Suisen's side and began examining his kunai for nicks.

Anei sighed again. "You know what? I don't have the patience to do the whole tremors and ash spouts game today. Let's cut straight to the eruption. We know Hidden Leaf was spying on us because the spies in question were wearing your symbol and carried characteristic traits from two of your major clans. But I won't condemn you for doing to us what we do right back when we can spare the resources. You said you're in pursuit of an S-class missing-nin?"

"I did say that," Kakashi agreed.

"I haven't personally seen any such person, but someone with at least jounin-level skills passed through this region four days ago," Anei said. "He killed your spies, and all three of the Inuzuka's dogs. Then he moved them to one of our outlying traps, which he set off, and ambushed our first response team. He took advantage of our subsequent mobilization to enter Kokuyougan fortress where Gouzen-sama was staying, at which point he stole a messenger hawk and sent it to an unknown location.

"He made fools of us and our lord, and I want him dead. I'll count his execution as fair payment for this information," she finished, and smiled. "Sukkiro, now!"

Ashy darkness swept over the clearing.

When sunlight began to filter through the leaves again, all eight Volcano-nin were gone.

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AN: Thanks for reading, and please review! I am, as always, particularly interested in knowing what parts of the chapter worked for you, what parts didn't, and why.

Further Note: I'm fudging a little with the sand-to-glass trick - the melting point of pure silica/sand is about 1700°C, which is extremely improbable for anyone to create even with handwavey magic powers - but hey. Rule of Cool. *grin*

As for the heat convection issue... I went to a glass-blowing demonstration at the Corning Museum of Glass a few years back. It is perfectly possible to hold and maneuver a lump of molten glass at one end of a stick and not burn yourself, even without handwavey magic protection. And that stuff gets hot - not nearly as bad as pure silica, but the melting point of soda lime glass is still about 500-600°C, which means it's incredibly dangerous even after it solidifies. The demo guy made a bowl, knocked it off the pipe, and dropped a crumpled sheet of paper inside. The paper went up in brilliant flames in barely a second.

You really, really, really do not want molten glass to touch your skin or clothes.