"It...doesn't sound like it," he frowned, then tried a smile. "Well...maybe we're just in the middle of some big, comedic misunderstanding, and they just want to make sure...they...don't..?"
His face reflected his faith and his voice, as all three petered out before he could even finish the thought.
"I hope so," Theida said, equally doubtful. "We probably shouldn't confront or refuse them... they don't want to kill us, right?" She turned that over in her mind. They'd gotten all the information out of her and Hother for that book. What else could they want? "Or- or do they?"
"I think..." Hother swallowed hard, trying to arrange his thoughts, "...we can't really afford to assume anything. ...Uh, but if we act too suspicious of them, they might react sooner, or worse, or..." He stifled a soft whine. "...That made more sense in my head."
"Let's just... not eat very much, or-"
Theida stiffened as Spindle came back through the doorway, holding two plates aloft, each piled with an arrangement of greens. "Apologies for the wait!" He placed one in front of each of the guests. Theida could only identify a few of the things in the mix. And there was no asparagus.
Hother observed his serving in a manner that he hoped didn't seem suspicious or critical, then suppressed the instinct to leap from his seat again as Bristlecone brought two further plates in, for Spindle and himself, adding,
"Y'all're probably used to much finer stuff than this, but we tried our hardest."
"Uh..." He disguised an attempt to sniff the plate with what was supposed to pass for a generally more polite gesture of observation. "...It's, ah...Thanks."
"Yes," Theida said automatically, "thanks." She momentarily considered trying to switch plates with one of the hosts, but there was no way to do that without seeming disrespectful or... suspicious.
So instead her attention wandered towards other excuses to delay eating. An organically-shaped plank of wood hanging on the wall caught her eye, engraved with a few of their foreign symbols. Surrounding these was a circle engraved with intricate patterns, which looked almost like...
"Are those runes?" she asked, nodding towards it. "I thought you guys did, uh, magic, sauce."
Bristlecone made some sort of noise between a snort and a polite chuckle.
"Magic sauce...That's a good name for it. Heh." The smile he wore then transitioned from one of mirth, quite smoothly, into something deeper; something a little more profound, with meaning behind it. "And that's our wedding certificate."
"Wedding..?" Hother turned the thought over in his mind a good few times, then his face lit up, and not just because this gave him an excuse to further delay the inevitable. "--Oh! I get it! That's...really nice, actually!"
Spindle grinned brightly. "Thank you! A lot of love went into it." Then, after a moment's thought, he added, "Do you have any ceremonies for marriage? If you're alright with sharing, I mean!"
Theida nodded along to the conversation, but noted with growing discomfort that hers and Hother's weren't the only untouched plates. Their hosts weren't eating anything, either. What were they waiting for? Were their plates poisoned, too? What kind of evildoer poisons their own food too?
Hother pawed hesitantly at his own, hoping that that gesture alone was enough to make it look like he was complying and not just shifting the contents of the meal around.
"W-well..." He moved to cover that up further by distracting himself with what he hoped was polite conversation. "Where I come from, marriage is all handled by the elders, and...I don't think they would allow a partnership like this. I think they would think it's 'morally wrong', or something. --B-but I disagree! I think my entire generation would disagree. What's so wrong about a wedding between different species, right?"
Bristlecone's response urged Hother to force the nothing in his mouth down his throat, for fear of having caused grave offence. But it could hardly be helped. What choice did he have? Run his mouth by force of nerves, or fill it with what might be toxic, or--
"Well, good for you for thinking for yourselves!" The alligator offered another one of those genuine, but still disconcerting, grins, which, perhaps worryingly, gave way to a more pensive look as he gestured at the guests. "...Oh, so you two definitely aren't..?"
Theida let out an incredulous huff of a laugh, which she quickly regretted for fear that Hother would take offense to it. "We've known each other for a day and a half," she explained. "And that kind of... romantic divide... didn't happen where I'm from, because the only people there are griffins, and I didn't know other species existed who could even talk till yesterday."
Spindle stared at her for a few seconds, looking more alarmed by all that than she thought necessary. Then he said, "You-- you're this far from home together and you've only known each other for-- for barely two days?" He glanced briefly at Bristlecone as if looking for some kind of affirmation that he had these facts put together right, and that he was right to question them. "I- I don't mean to make it my business if you don't want to- to say, but I just-- what could have caused--" he took a deep breath, forcing himself to stop and swallow most of his worried words. "I apologize. That... sounds like a lot to go through in such a short time."
"I'm not entirely sure I've had enough time to properly process it, myself..." Hother idly lifted something-- it didn't matter what-- from the plate before him. "But...I suppose it is."
Not quite mirroring him, Bristlecone reached for some food, leaning in ever so slightly, but not committing to anything just yet.
"But you still trust each other, right?" Hother barely had a chance to inhale to reply when Bristlecone continued his thread of thought. "--Ah, I don't mean to sound like I'm try'n'a force y'all into nothing. ...I made it weird, didn't I?"
"I...trust her not to kill me." He picked his words carefully. Best not to be too overt, he reasoned; best accompany this next thought with a polite laugh; make it seem like friendly banter. "...The same way we can trust you, right? Haha..."
Spindle returned the laugh automatically, but more awkwardly, almost confused. But instead of questioning it, he seemed to assume this was meant as a genuine sort of banter, and kept the mood of his response light. "Trusting a frog and a gator? In their own home?" he looked at Bristlecone with mock disbelief. "Now who would go and do something like that?"
Theida decided that opening her mouth would lead this conversation in the wrong direction again, so she resorted to staring at her food, considering mimicking Hother's movement towards it.
"Naw, yeah, we're total savages!" Bristlecone grinned, eager to play along. "And on that note, can we eat already? I couldn't help but notice we're at a bit of a stalemate, here."
A chill shot through Hother at the prospect of their apprehension being much more transparent than he had dared to assume.
"I'm guessing it's a cultural thing, right? And, hey, stop me if I'm wrong." His tone, in spite of everything, seemed genuine enough. "Do y'all normally wait for the hosts to start eating before you do? 'Cause 'round these parts, it's the other way around."
"O-oh." Hother's eyes darted to Theida for assistance. "That's...considerate."
Theida met Hother's eyes briefly. "Uh. Yeah." What were they supposed to do now? "Let's just... let's, uh," She didn't even know what was going to come out of her mouth. "How about we all. Eat at the same time."
Spindle had looked empathetic and almost interjected when she couldn't find the words, but closed his mouth when she said the last line. He looked startled at the proposal. "O-oh, uh. That-- th-that sounds good to me?" He turned up towards the other two table members for their approval.
"If y'all don't think it's rude, I'm not complainin'!"
With heavy hesitation, and an unsteady sensation reverberating in his throat-- not quite willing to develop into an uneasy growl at this stage, but still something that tempted his hackles into rising-- Hother reached anew for the offering in front of him. Bristlecone did the same with precisely the opposite amount of apprehension.
Spindle, glancing back and forth at everyone else, started eating about when it seemed everyone else was. Theida wondered briefly whether she should try to pick up food with her claws to imitate the others, but decided against it. Better to risk a little cultural weirdness than make a complete fool of herself. She leaned forwards to take a bite of a familiar-looking salad component, although it probably didn't matter, because come to think of it, the dressing might very well be the poison. These people made magic sauce, after all.
"Oh!" her eyes widened as she took a bite. "Wow. This is really good."
In less than a pawful of seconds, Hother had found himself going through much the same rush of thoughts, sans the concerns about his dexterity compared to their hosts'. He found himself wearing a pout of approval, and when he was quite sure he absolutely was not about to die anyway, he nodded assent.
"Glad you're enjoyin' it!" Bristlecone grinned, evidently lacking any qualms about talking with his mouth full...and, Hother observed, what a paradoxical sight it was, to see that many teeth dedicated entirely to ravaging a serving of plants, despite their intimidating appearan-- Best not to stare, he cautioned himself, returning focus to the meal that was, against all expectations, actual food indeed.
Theida would probably die for this food. Well, not really, but she was very much hoping at this point that the salad wasn't actually poisonous, because she certainly wasn't about to pass up the opportunity to eat more of it. ...Slowly, though.
"Oh," Spindle said, "er, stop me if I'm making you repeat yourself, as I- I haven't seen the new additions to the book yet, but I'm-- I've been wondering how different this place feels from your homes. Physically, I mean! It would be silly to expect you to be in tune with the culture after just a day, but--" he cut himself off and paused for a moment. "...You know, buildings, or the land. I just... I wonder, because it sounds like you're from far away, and I'm having trouble imagining what it might be like."
Hother considered the question, taking refuge in his reverie as a means of keeping calm. After a moment and a half of dedicated pondering, he concluded,
"Much drier." He inclined his head to allow an elaboration to germinate. "...That is, the ground is much sturdier, and there aren't as many trees...and the ones that we do have are completely different from the ones here." His ears perked up. "...Oh! Like a different species...of...tree."