In an attempt to be organized, I'll say that there three elements of 278 I want to look at here--Orihime's possible big personality change, Ichigo's morally ambiguous behavior, and the UlquiHime dynamic. (It should go unspoken that Grimm and Ichi are shooting the sparks! XD)
If shounen manga is supposed to tell moral tales for how young Japanese men should behave, Bleach ain't anything new. I could argue (and might someday) that Ichigo is more complicated than your typical shounen hero, but in this chapter he did something that struck me right away as "oh damn, such a man--he's regressed to the boy who wanted to fight with Ganjyu in SS." But there's more to Ichigo's expression of "Woo boy, the fight I've been waiting for!" Half-healed and looking downright terrible (especially terrible since Kubo paid the art so much attention) Ichigo rose to defend Orihime. Yes, this time he defended her (Ichigo's previous exchange with Ulquiorra, I believe strongly, had nothing to do with Orihime and more to do with wanting to pass, and because Ulquiorra wouldn't let him pass. Clashing against Ulqui with that undrawn shikai showed Ichigo's usual temper, not a desire to protect Orihime in the present moment. Immediate reasons are what propel Ichigo most of the time.
Ichigo's name is about protecting. He has never failed to (try to) protect. Maybe Kubo slyly put Orihime here to be defended since Ichigo was running away from her in 270 and his audience was seeing that as a very bad thing. Maybe, as one well-thought 278 entry suggested, Kubo wanted to make a little fun of the audience who saw 270 as purely IchiRuki (I'm still of this IchiRki persuasion, btw, because Ichigo actually wanted to leave a fight--but my interpretation of 270 that way doesn't exclude being made fun of by my favorite manga-ka. <3). Kubo's is sadistic genius so the idea has some merit. There are plenty other places in this arc where I see Kubo poking fun at BL, but hey that just may be me. The joke in 278 exists only if one reads Ichigo's stopping for Grimmjow as comparable to him stopping for Rukia. In order for that to be, Ichigo has to be a pretty unheroic hero (and Grimmjow has to be an Irresistible attraction XD) But wanting to fight and wanting to protect are both congruous inspirations for any of Ichigo's behaviors.
Grimmjow challenges Ichigo to interrupt to the shounen hero's goal, any goal--protecting Orihime or protecting Rukia or going back to help Chad or going to the bathroom. Did anyone think Ichigo would refuse to fight?
Ichigo has a looooong history of wanting to fight, loving to fight, want to get stronger. There are so many boys in Bleach (my Ishida for one) who are this way--these characters have not yet discovered what they want to protect--a BIG martial arts truism you see in manga. You need that reason. Pride or devotion to a friend doesn't cut it. Ichigo's very character is about protection--about fighting but not fighting for selfish reasons. He doesn't have to get morally stronger in Bleach; he has to get physically stronger in order to protect.
Ichigo may not be the brightest penny in the jar and he doesn't think before acting but his impulse is to protect. Grimmjow had his hand on Orihime's throat. No moral Japanese boy or shounen hero, however wounded , allows that sort of thing. However immaturely Ichigo seemed to want to fight an impossible battle, his actions were spurred by needing to protect Orihime. That Ichigo was enthusiastic about fighting to the point that he wanted his enemy healed may have struck some readers (raises hand) as stupid. But this is shounen and Ichigo's got grudges. Grudges are answered and deaths are vindicated in some martial arts moral codes. Ichigo needed to fight Grimmjow as much as he needed to protected Orihime. When two needs conflict what does a boy do?
So after forgiving Ichigo for being a dumb ass, I came to look at Orihime again. I saw a braver girl but not an essential change. Someone mentioned that there was a huge change of character for her here. She wasn't sobbing or acting traumatized--even when confronted with Ichigo's "death." Someone else said that Orihime has changed in the dynamic of Ulquiorra and Ichigo and Grimmjow. Whenever the change happened, it happened as she knelt to heal Kurosaki. She had a job. She knew her job. She paid attention to her job. Moments later, she refuses to answer Ulquiorra (the now famous head turn included in that denial) and she stands up to both Grimmjow and Ichigo. You go girl.
Some have suggested that Kurosaki's very presence inspired her (in which case we don't have character development on her part). I think that it was Orihime's sense of having a purpose and being able to help her friends (in this case Kurosaki) gave her the strength to crawl out of her hole.
As to whether or not there's really something brewing between Ulquiorra and Orihime, I agree with one friend who said it 's not romantic, it's interesting. I thought it was fanservice (and Kubo loves to fanservice) but this relationship has been building since "that looks suprisingly good on you" and seems well planned. A complicated relationship and maybe a one-sided attraction on Ulquiorra's part. In some ways Ulqui serves as the Ishida character from SS--someone who is dark, smart, unaware of social proprieties (Orihime teaches Ulqui to knock before entering! That still tickles me) and who grows because of exposure to this lovely girl. Hell, Ulquiorra even looks like Ishida. My son argues that Ulqui is Orihime's brother--that would be a wild twist--but I prefer to see him as a being who is slowly gathering his humanity.
The glance--don't see it as romantic. Still, I see Ulquiorra and Orihime's dynamic as more charged than the one between Ichigo and Orihime . There is no emphasis on a possible IchiOri romance here. In order to see IchiOri romance, I needed Orihime and Ichigo to exchange a look. They didn't. The true tension is Grimmjow/Ichigo--even more so that Grimmjow/Ulquiorra fight which, wow, was wonderful and so beautifully drawn. Kubo has this way of making elbows arms and hands so expressive.
I loved reading your answers and wondered how different they might be if hardcore shippers had answered. Seems to me (maybe I'm wrong) that those answering had other OTPs but love all the characters enough to think about their futures.
Hitsugaya and Hinamori
my prejudice: a weak, dependent Himamori. I see her character's purpose in showing Aizen's evilness and in showing how Orihime could end up just like her in the presence of Aizen, but... she never appealed to me a character.
A lot of you stressed that Momo and Hitsugaya's relationship has to go a long way to being repaired. Oh definitely. What I didn't hear overtly here is that Momo is beyond help and not worthy of Hitsugaya. Being a long-time believer in the powers of recuperation (in RL as well as in manga! XD), I'm going to go with the idea that Kubo will develop Momo's character more. I think a relationship *is* possible, but only if a whole lot of baggage is dropped off at the curb.
Will she stop merely rubbing Hitsugaya's hair and calling him cutie names? That's vital if there's going to be a romantic relationship. I can see a fondness for this pair in your responses--HitsaHina is the classic I'll protect and I'll be protected relationship. It's ancient story material for romance but it fails lousily at representing the strength of women. And Kubo is no slouch at representing his women. I think the main reason I love Bleach (besides the lovely sexiness) is that it's a girlpower story without emphasizing that too roughly.
Hitsugaya and Matsumoto
My prejudice: Toushiro just looks so young, even if he isn't and even if he's the most mature of many characters in Bleach. The shota thing is just under the surface for me, even though I love Matsumoto beyond anything as a character.
Matsumoto comes on to Hitsugaya. She does. I've seen it. Whether or not it's for comedic purposes solely (as Ileenka says) or whether the relationship could be more. .... Nah. Even if a relationship were to happen, it would be one where the characters comfort one another over Gin and Momo. For an authentic relationship to happen, Kubo would have to spend a lot of time developing both characters (and he may--Hitsugaya, since he made high up in favorites polls has been in the story in places I don't think called for him).
The relationship is, though, as one poster said, sexy. You just know that Hitsugaya is going to look fine, fine, finer than anyone when he grows up--and Matsumoto is one person who could deal with his power, authority and Irresistible good looks! XD
So, from reading your responses, I'm of the opinion that there will be no romance for Hitsugaya in Bleach and neither will it be hinted at. There's only so much romance a shounen can deal with, and I think Orihime piled it close to the limit with her chapter 237. I like Hitsu and Hina as siblings but if I had to pick a romantic relationship here, it would be HitsuHina over HitsuMatsu. Lots of reasons--one being that I don't see angst and complexity and that's what brings people together in a story. I think they're too funny even when Mats is being ridiculously sexy. And everyone here had more to say about HitsuHina. than about HitsuMatsu. That shows a deep interest in that pairing even if you think its unlikely to happen
I don't give away enough juicy links when I find them. This isn't Bleach related but it's such a wonderful entry for fic writers. Does Fanfic Need to Be "Responsible?"