Life for Leonard James has moved in tiny steps since he was shot in the back about nine months ago.

The pain lingers.

So does the bullet, a .45-caliber round lodged in his spine.

But feeling is beginning to return, too, not just in his legs, but in his heart, he says, his palm resting on his chest.

James, 34, was shot in the back in February by Ian Whittaker during a party at James' Widefield home.

Whittaker, who has been charged with second-degree assault, prohibited use of a weapon and reckless endangerment, says it was an accident.

James is not so sure, wondering why his friend brought a handgun to the party in the first place.

In the meantime, James has started to feel hopeful pangs of recovery.

He's regained enough movement in his legs to be fitted Nov. 22 with braces that lock his legs straight and help him get around without a wheelchair for the first time since he was shot Feb. 12.

He's returned to classes at Colorado State University in Pueblo, where he is pursuing a business degree.

And he is driving again, sort of.

A Chrysler convertible sits in his driveway. It's outfitted with controls that allow him to drive with his hands. He learned to do that at Craig Hospital in Denver, where he took classes.

He's hit the road three times.

The first trek was a mere four blocks to pick his son up from school. He ventured a bit further to the Safeway store several blocks away later, but he's nervous about getting behind the wheel in traffic. Still, he drove to Denver - slowly.

"Confidence," he said. "It will take confidence."

Those tiny steps have added up.

When he first left Craig in April - where he was treated after learning he was paralyzed from about mid-chest down - he stayed at a Colorado Springs hotel while his house was revamped for a paralyzed person.

He had no movement then, and the only feeling he had was the ripping pain that tore through his body, causing him to wince and bend over as if he'd been struck in the gut.

He's learned to handle the pain now.

But most of all, the tiny signs of improvement and return to a more normal life have given him visions of a brighter future.

"I like those tiny steps," he said. "I like to look around, see where I've been and what I am doing."

He has been told what is happening to his legs is called sparing - nerves that have been "spared" from damage.

He demonstrates by straightening his leg, then moving it the tiniest bit.

"I was pleased to find that out and then my physical therapist said I could continue to have sparing for up to two years," he said.

He's even able to put weight on his legs now.

"Just a little bit, not much, but I need the braces basically to lock my knees out," he said. "Then once my knees are locked, I can stand. I can actually stand. And then I will be able to move around. I will have crutches, and I will be able to move around."

Just being vertical, he said, is going to help.

He was fitted for the braces by Michael Hartley at Abilities Unlimited Inc.

Once fitted, he wheeled himself over to waist-high parallel bars, where Hartley helped him stand.

"How does that feel?" he asked James.

"It feels great," James said, though his balance was off.

"It's arduous," Hartley told him. "It's going to take a long time."

It didn't matter to James.

"It's the best Christmas present ever," he said.

The return to classes is also helping James. It's a much-needed return of his social life, being with other students.

His mother, Carlotta James, drives him to Pueblo for his classes.

"It's been a challenge," she said.

But to Leonard, a bachelor's degree is once again within reach.

Others have noticed his gains.

"He's got more movement in his legs and he's getting his muscles back," said Joshua Stettnisch, James' close friend and neighbor.

James, he said "has gained a lot since he's gotten out of the hospital."

And so the hope spreads.

Even his doctors have hope, James said.

"If a doctor says you are getting better, you feel like you are getting better," he said. "If my doctor told me I could sprout wings and fly, I would believe him. I would sprout wings and fly."